Doing business with homophobes

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Austin Independent School District Performing Arts Center.

This weekend the Austin Independent School District pocketed 11 grand by letting the Celebration Church, a nondenominational congregation in Georgetown, use its performing arts center. Some people were pissed:

Gay rights political activist groups stood outside the Austin school district performing arts center Sunday morning chanting and waving pride flags and signs to protest against a church that opposes gay marriage and criticize the district for renting the facility to the church.

Reporting on the controversy earlier this month, the Austin Chronicle highlighted some of the Church’s beliefs:

The “Beliefs” section of the church’s website reads, “Marriage is sanctioned by God – joining one man and one woman in a single, exclusive union.” The website goes on to condemn “homosexuality, bisexual conduct … or any attempt to change one’s sex, or disagreement with one’s biological sex” as “sinful and offensive to God.” An expanded section on the church’s marriage policy indicates that anyone who volunteers, works with, or becomes a member of the church must abide by this set of views.

For some additional context, the church’s website explicitly says that it welcomes all people, “regardless of age, race, sexual orientation, religion or political beliefs” before it condemns sexual behavior that is not endorsed by the Bible. This is pretty standard “love the sinner, hate the sin” Christian doctrine.

The Celebration Church espouses backwards views on human sexuality. But so do most churches. Even many liberal churches struggle to reconcile their desire to adopt more progressive views on sexuality with Church doctrine and/or the text of the Bible. Should AISD also refuse business from Catholic dioceses? (Particularly in light of the most recent Church child abuse revelations, I suspect many of my readers would quickly respond in the affirmative) What about the many “welcoming” United Methodist Church congregations throughout the city that are nevertheless bound by church doctrine that prohibits gay people from serving in the clergy?

This makes me recall a conversation with fellow members of the editorial board of my college newspaper, the Badger Herald, back in 2008. I was tasked with writing an editorial endorsing then-Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., who has since become the first openly gay U.S. Senator. Addressing the issue of gay marriage, I wrote something along the lines of how we needed to “reject the prejudices of our parents and grandparents.” A colleague objected to the line, saying he didn’t like the idea of insulting our forebears. I said I didn’t view it as an insult, but just as an acknowledgement that progress almost always involves shedding some of the beliefs passed down to us by people we love and respect. The same is true of the nation’s founding fathers and founding documents: they are still a valuable source of wisdom on a number of topics, but they also got a lot of things wrong (see: slavery, electoral college).

I’m not a Christian and I’m happy to see the ranks of atheists and agnostics increase in the U.S., but I also know that progress in this country cannot take place without the support of Christians, including many Christians who are members of conservative churches. The incredible gains made by the gay rights movement over the past decade are not the result of millions of Christians renouncing their religion, but rather the millions who were able to change their views on homosexuality without leaving the Church.

There is likely some additional context I lack, but based just on its website, what the Celebration Church says about sexuality and gender hardly makes it an outlier in Christendom. If you check out the websites of most of the major nondenominational churches in Austin, they might not specify their views on those issues, but their insistence that the Bible is the “inerrant” word of God doesn’t leave much room for interpretation. And yet, I can guarantee you that all of these churches have members who are not anti-gay.

If we lived in Denmark, it would be much easier to blackball homophobic religions from mainstream society. But that’s not the society we live in. Instead, we live in a society where people are progressively adopting more tolerant views on sexuality and gender but there is a very large minority who cling to more conservative views. Trying to shame that group out of existence may appear to work in liberal enclaves, such as Austin, but overall it’s a terrible strategy that fuels the right-wing resentment machine that put Trump in the White House.

In conclusion, my guess is that AISD knew that canceling the event would lead to some pretty nasty political and legal implications far greater than the small protest they endured over the weekend. Denying access to a church would have very likely invited a First Amendment lawsuit and all kinds of exploitative attention from the Abbott/Patrick/Paxton brigade.

Even if the school district is allowed to pick and choose who it rents space to, that’s not a position that it wants to be in. If they’re going to tell a would-be customer that his money is no good, they likely only want to do that in extraordinary cases: the KKK or the Nazi Party, for instance. Or maybe the InfoWars convention, come to think of it.

I guess AISD could simply not rent out its spaces. But from what I hear, Austin public schools aren’t in a position to turn down money.

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