World Religions and the Struggle for Equality

by HRC Staff

Harry Knox and Sharon Groves, Conscience Magazine, Spring 2006

Much has been written about the Vatican's "Instruction" refusing to allow openly gay men enter Catholic seminaries. The first press leaks about the document coincided with the formation of a new effort by the Religion and Faith Program at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation in the summer of 2005 that had a twofold mission: (1) to equip religious leaders and lay people alike to speak out about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality from a faith perspective and (2) to work with people of
faith to change the conversation about LGBT equality from within their faith communities. Until now, the radical right has convinced many Americans that religion is antagonistic to the interests, and indeed to the very humanity, of LGBT people. It is our grounding belief, however, that all religions contain within them a profound reverence for the source of love and compassion in our lives and that this source is inclusive of all people no matter their race, gender, economic means, physical ability or sexual orientation. As we hope you will glean from this overview of non-Catholic traditions, the scriptural underpinning of most world religions is more inclusive than is often depicted.

Islam is the second largest and the fastest growing religion in the world. As with all other major religions, its stance on lesbian and gay people is theologically complex. Currently, the more conservative elements in Islam hold sway. Consequently, almost all official organs of Islam around the world condemn homosexuality while differing mostly on degrees of punishment for lesbian and gay people. The Hanfite school that predominates in south and eastern Asia, for instance, maintains that same-gender sex does not merit physical punishment, while the Hanbalites who predominate in the Arab world believe that homosexual activity must be punished severely.

Theological Underpinnings
The basis for Islam's condemnation of LGBT people is taken from a few verses in the Qu'ran, most of which describe the story of Lot, who lived in the biblical city of Sodom, and four Hadiths, sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, that do not meet historical accuracy nor theological scrutiny.
The Qu'ran's telling of the story of Lot emphasizes an injunction against heterosexual males using homosexual rape as a form of torture and punishment. It does not speak to lesbian practices. Some progressive Muslim scholars, particularly in the West, argue that the Qu'ran does not address loving relationships between gay and lesbian people, but instead only discusses homosexual activity within a loveless and usually violent context. They have also questioned the authenticity of the Hadith literature relating to the killing of homosexuals, unconvinced they are the words and practices of Prophet Muhammad.

Progressive Islam in the United States
Al-Fatiha Foundation, begun in 1997, is dedicated to advocating for LGBT people. Their mission is to "enlighten the Muslim and outside world that Islam is a religion of tolerance and not hate, and that Allah loves His creations, no matter what their sexual orientations might be." Very recently, the Progressive Muslim Union of North America organized, among other things, "to endorse the human rights and liberties of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-sexual individuals [and]テ reject the authoritarian, racist, sexist and homophobic interpretations of our faith as antithetical to the principles of justice and compassion."

Buddhism consists of many schools, sects and subsects amongst which there is no consensus about same-gender relationships. The Buddha left no teachings on homosexual orientation and did not place great value on procreation. Further, Buddhist sacred texts are filled with loving (albeit mostly non-sexual) relationships between men. Nonetheless, larger cultural attitudes about homosexuality and the interpretation of the Buddhist precept "to abstain from sexual misconduct," have fostered hostility against LGBT people in some communities.

The three major schools of Buddhism in the West encounter lesbian and gay concerns at slightly different places in their practice. Theravada Buddhism focuses heavily on the monastic tradition and homosexuality comes up largely as part of the range of sexual behavior forbidden to monks and nuns. Importantly, homosexuality is not singled out for special condemnation. Zen Buddhism, on the other hand, emphasizes the liberation of all beings and thus focuses more on the significance of the Buddha's teachings for lay people. When discussing sexual misconduct, Zen Buddhists will often point to practices such as hedonism, ascetic masochism and prostitution as violations of the "Middle Way." Lesbian, gay and heterosexual practices on the other hand are valued when they are a part of mutually loving and supportive relationships. Of the three traditions, Tibetan Buddhism is the most controversial.

Tibetan Buddhism
Largely through the force of the Dalai Lama's personality, Tibetan Buddhism has become a much revered form of Buddhism in the United States. The Dalai Lama's positions on homosexuality are complex and evolving. On the positive side, he has publicly condemned violence against LGBT people and has been reported to have said, "If the two people have taken no vows [of chastity], and neither is harmed why should it not be acceptable?" Yet in a 1997 press conference he commented that "from a Buddhist point of view [lesbian and gay sex] is generally considered sexual misconduct."

In a 1997 meeting with representatives of the lesbian and gay community the Dalai Lama was reported to show interest in how modern scientific research might create new understanding of the Buddhist texts, acknowledging that some Buddhist teachings might be specific to a particular cultural and historical moment. At the same meeting, he urged those present to work toward building a consensus among Buddhist traditions and communities "to collectively change the understanding of the Buddhist scriptural references on sexuality for contemporary society."

Hinduism is practiced by one-sixth of the world's population, making it the third largest religion in the world. Most Hindus live in India, but there are about 1.5 million Hindus in the United States. Although there are many Hindu-based LGBT groups in the United States and India and some evidence that more inclusive perspectives are being heard from within Hinduism, modern Hindu culture remains largely antagonistic to the rights of LGBT people. Interestingly, however, the ancient Hindu teachings offer a rich and fascinating history for LGBT people. Much work has been done by Hindu scholars and LGBT activists to uncover and reinterpret this rich spiritual history.
There are four Vedic texts written originally in Sanskrit that make up what is known as the Vedas, the primary texts of Hinduism. Vedic literature offers numerous examples of diversity in both sex and gender, including such stories as a 14th-century devotional about how a heroking, Bhagiratha, was miraculously born to and raised by two co-widows, who made love together with divine blessing.

The Vedic literature also developed an elaborate category for people who didn't fit into a traditional heterosexual paradigm called tritiya-prakriti or the third sex. The third sex included gays, lesbians and transgender people, and although certainly not a utopian existence, there is evidence that third-sex people were accommodated particularly within artisan and monastic communities.

However, colonialism in the 16th and 19th centuries played a large role in the demonization of homosexuality. In 1860, for instance, the British established an anti-sodomy law that empowered a marginal homophobic trend to become dominant in modern India. Today, there is evidence that the situation is changing for the better. Debate has begun in both Indian and US Hindu communities about marriage equality for same-gender couples. New voices have emerged among LGBT Hindus. The Gay and Lesbian Vaishnava Association ( has been particularly engaged in fostering an international discussion about LGBT issues and providing valuable resources about Hinduism's sexually inclusive sacred writings.

Judaism is one of the first recorded monotheistic faiths and one of the oldest religious traditions still practiced today. In the United States, approximately 5.8 million people are Jewish. Similar to Christianity, Judaism covers a wide spectrum of positions on LGBT rights and striking differences occur across each of the four major movements.

Even though Orthodox Judaism is more diverse than often depicted, it is the most conservative of the four contemporary Jewish movements and the most hostile to LGBT issues. Orthodox Jews believe in the divine origins of the Torah (the five books of Moses) and the duty of Orthodox Jews to study the Torah and observe Jewish law.
Orthodox Jewish teachings hold that the prohibition against sex between men as described in Leviticus is the word of God and that ancient rabbinic teaching tells us that same-gender relationships are abhorrent and dangerous. Because the Torah has nothing to say about lesbian sexuality, prohibitions against it do not carry the same weight according to Orthodox Jewish law, though it is still viewed as indecent.
While very few Orthodox leaders support the anti-gay Federal Marriage Amendment, most hold that marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman and the movement will not ordain an openly gay person who is in a sexual relationship.

Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism
The Reform movement, with its 1.7 million members, is the largest Jewish denomination in the United States the 130,000 members of the Reconstructionist denomination make it the smallest. Both groups support LGBT people, welcome them as members and as clergy, fully support marriage equality and advocate against employment discrimination.
In 1990, Reform Judaism made it illegal for rabbinical schools to discriminate based on sexual orientation. In 2003, the Union for Reform Judaism co-signed a statement opposing the anti-gay Federal Marriage Amendment and Hebrew Union College, the Reform movement's premier seminary, admitted its first transgender student.

Conservative Judaism developed as a response to what it saw as Reform-Judaism's radical departure from tradition. It began in the United States where it continues to have its largest following of 1.4 million members. On both social and theological issues, Conservative Judaism is often perceived as the "middle" group, between the Reform and Orthodox movements. Their stance on LGBT issues has been ambivalent and mirrors the progress and obstacles found in many mainline Protestant churches.

On the positive side, in 1990, Conservative Jews publicly claimed to welcome members of all sexual orientations, to support the decriminalization of homosexual behavior among consenting adults and to support laws that protect gays and lesbians from discrimination. Unfortunately, they declared that gays and lesbians are ineligible for ordination as rabbis and they opposed marriage equality, civil unions or commitment ceremonies.

In 2003, this ruling was challenged by the historic decision of the board of directors to authorize same-gender unions according to Jewish ritual. The vote marked the first official instance in which a board of directors allowed its rabbi to perform a same-gender wedding.

In August 2003, after the Beth El Congregation of Baltimore authorized samegender unions, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards reiterated the ban on same-gender unions and on the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis. However, the committee has pledged to continue to re-examine gay and lesbian issues in relation to Jewish law. In 2005, a new group, Keshet-Rabbis (Keshet is the Hebrew word for rainbow) formed and more than 200 Conservative Rabbis have signed a document
stating, "Through our understanding of Jewish sources and Jewish values, we affirm that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews may fully participate in community life and achieve positions of professional and lay leadership."

Mainline Protestant Denominations
Christianity claims more than two billion adherents, making it the world's largest religion. A number of Protestant denominations have led the way on LGBT issues. The Metropolitan Community Churches was founded in 1968 as the world's first church to have a primary, positive ministry to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. The Unitarian Universalist Association, although not strictly Christian, has its origins in liberal Christianity and was one of the very first "Open and Affirming" denominations in the country. The Society of Friends has also been a strong ally. The United Church of Christ ordains LGBT ministers and, in June 2005, became the first mainline Christian denomination to call for civil and religious marriage equality for LGBT couples.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are a number of denominations, including Southern Baptists, the Church of Latter Day Saints and Seventh Day Adventists-to name just a few-that have traditionally been hostile on all issues that effect LGBT people. It is in the moderate mainline Protestant denominations that we see the most extensive movement (both positive and negative) around gay and lesbian equality. We focus below on how lesbian and gay concerns have been addressed within the
Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, but its struggles are reflected in other denominations, including, notably, the Presbyterian Church usa, the United Methodist Church and the Episcopal Church, USA.

Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA)
The five-million member Evangelical Lutheran Church of America has for more than 15 years considered how to welcome lesbian and gay people. Its struggle shows how volatile discussions of LGBT equality are within mainline church communities.

The ELCA welcomes gay and lesbian members but believes the blessing of same-gender relationships is not supported by scripture. It has, however, agreed to continue to work with churches and ministers who feel differently. Similarly, although the denomination requires that lesbian or gay ELCA ministers must be celibate, they have not disciplined some ministers who have chosen not to follow this dictate. Most recently, in August 2005, the national Churchwide Assembly voted to retain discriminatory policies on ordination (but defeated a referendum on enforcing these policies) and refused to clarify an ambiguous position on the blessing of covenanted same-gender relationships.
Practice varies widely by congregation and regional synod. One synod, Metropolitan New York, acknowledged and approved the presence of gay clergy. While a total of three congregations have now been removed from the elca since 1995 for calling gay and lesbian persons who have refused a vow of celibacy, numerous other congregations have called pastors in same-gender relationships. Some of these churches have been sanctioned by the denomination, but none have been expelled.
The ELCA will continue conversations on homosexuality between 2005 and 2009. Currently more than 300 elca congregations have passed statements welcoming LGBT of their own-a sign that change is happening congregation by congregation.

This brief overview can in no way do justice to all the religions practiced around the world nor to the historical and theological complexity of those faiths discussed in this article. What we hope to demonstrate, however, is that across all major faiths-even those that seem openly hostile to the LGBT community-there are justice-seeking people working to build religions that offer solace, comfort and abiding love for everyone. This spiritual commitment to change is a constant source of inspiration for us as we struggle to create churches that value all of God's people. The movement for justice will not be denied.

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