Houston Pastor Says Religious Freedom Means the Right to Discriminate Against Gays, Jews

by Dan Quinn

This, folks, is a case of a religious-righter being forced to follow her absurd argument to its unavoidable conclusion.

Kudos to Houston City Council Member Ellen Cohen for making clear what opponents of the proposed Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (ERO) are really saying when they argue for the religious freedom to discriminate against LGBT people. The ERO would bar discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations based on sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, race, sex, military status and a number of other protected characteristics. Houston is the last major city in Texas without such a comprehensive civil rights ordinance.

Religious-right activists have focused almost exclusively on the ordinance’s protections for LGBT people. They argue that business owners and others have the right, because of their religious beliefs, to discriminate against someone who is gay or transgender. (Many mainstream faith leaders, we should note, have strongly supported passage of the measure.)

So check out the short exchange in the video clip above between Cohen and Becky Riggle, a pastor at Houston’s Grace Community Church. Riggle was testifying against the ordinance, arguing that it violates the religious freedom of business owners and others in Houston who think LGBT people are sinful. If a business owner has the right to refuse service to LGBT people because the owner’s religious beliefs are offended, Cohen asks, then should business owners also be able to refuse service to other people — like, say, Jews — for the same reason?

Riggle, clearly realizing she’s trapped by her own argument, proceeds to trip all over her tongue in trying to respond. She ultimately suggests that yes, religious freedom would allow her to discriminate against Jews. But she insists “that’s not the issue” in the case of the Houston ERO.

Actually, that’s exactly what this is about — whether someone’s religious beliefs give them a free pass to discriminate against anyone they choose in civil society.

Riggle’s husband and fellow Grace pastor, Steve Riggle, has been one of the most strident anti-gay voices in Houston. He was a prominent organizer and speaker, for example, at this week’s “rally” against the proposed Houston ERO. In the past he has called on Mayor Annise Parker to resign because she supports marriage equality for LGBT people, and he has objected to the mayor referring to her wife as Houston’s First Lady.

Now Council Member Cohen has skillfully exposed what the Riggles and other religious-right opponents of the Houston ERO are really saying, whether they want to admit it or not. They want to use their religious beliefs as a weapon to divide and stigmatize, not unite and love; to self-righteously sit in judgment over those who don’t share their beliefs; and to demand that government recognize their “right” to ignore laws everyone else must obey. Today they seek to persecute LGBT people. Tomorrow they will target someone else.

(H/T Faith in Public Life)