Gotta Have Faith

Local churches are NOT Trying to Pray the Gay Away

In the past year, clergy and lay faith leaders in the Pittsburgh area and across Pennsylvania have been stepping up to show unprecedented public support for LGBT equality. They know that the right and loving thing to do is to protect LGBT people from discrimination because of their faith and not in spite of it.

As the Faith Organizer for Equality Pennsylvania, I have been traveling the state for the past year and have encountered more than 625 clergy and over 1,000 lay people of faith who are willing to show public support for Senate Bill and House Bill 300 (SB/HB 300). This law would update the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act to include ‘sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.’ These faith leaders are also organizing LGBTaffirming interfaith coalitions to make a difference for the lives of LGBT people where they live.

At a prayer breakfast held in Pittsburgh in March, Representative Dan Frankel, a Pennsylvania House Representative from the East End and lead sponsor of House Bill 300, said “we are close to passage of statewide non-discrimination protections and faith support has been so important for this cause.” He also shared how his own Jewish faith has been why he has worked for equality all these years.


His spiritual leader, Rabbi Aaron Bisno of Rodef Shalom Congregation, encouraged faith leaders to speak up. “The cost of silence is that the only voices of faith that LGBT people hear are voices of condemnation. Many clergy know in their hearts that the right thing to do is to protect LGBT people from unjust discrimination, but nothing will change if our legislators do not update our laws. And since some voices of faith are the most opposed, legislators need to hear from supportive clergy and congregation members who speak lovingly and loudly.”

The Rev. Dr. Steven Tuell from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary shared his extensive knowledge of the Bible. He noted that in a creation story in the Book of Genesis, “God created different ‘kinds’ of animals but God only created one kind of human. We are not to separate ourselves out in separate categories when we are all equal in the eyes of God – all created in the image of God with sacred worth.” He shared how his congregation at United Methodist Church “advocates strongly for full civil equality for LGBT people even though they are still not fully inclusive in their congregations and that most religious denominations have official moral teachings in support of civil equality.”

The Rev. Shanea Leonard, Pastor of JUDAH Fellowship Church on the North Side, spoke about the Pittsburgh Faith Consortium, a coalition of clergy and lay people who are working for LGBT equality in Pittsburgh and also advocating for statewide nondiscrimination protections. Her local congregation is a safe space for LGBT and same gender loving people, especially those who have come from black church traditions.

Judge Hugh McGough, a member of First Unitarian Church in Pittsburgh, told the story of how he has officiated at dozens of same-sex marriages since marriage equality came to Pennsylvania In May 2014. “It’s wrong that loving couples can celebrate their wedding on the weekend, but then get fired if they seek spousal benefits at their job – simply for being an LGBT person.” Allegheny County has had a local non-discrimination ordinance in place since July 2009, but two-thirds of Pennsylvanians can be fired, evicted, or turned away from a business because they are not protected by the state or federal laws.

Across the state, there are many pastors, rabbis, bishops, and other clergy who have educated themselves about the so-called religious freedom laws being pushed in many other states. Pennsylvania was founded on the values of religious liberty. We of all people should know that religious freedom has always been about freedom FROM discrimination so people can practice the religion of their choice (or no religion at all) and still be equal in society. It has never in our history been about the freedom of religious people TO discriminate by imposing their religious beliefs on others.

Recently, all four Episcopal bishops in PA released a letter of support for SB/HB 300 and other denomination leaders have signed a clergy support statement saying that discrimination against LGBT people is immoral (have your clergy person sign at bit.ly/PA-Faith-Leadersfor-Equality). Many of them are taking their first steps as advocates for equality – because they care about the LGBT people in their congregations. In April, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette issued an editorial calling on lawmakers to “heed their clergy” and pass SB/ HB 300. In addition, Pittsburgh City Council passed a proclamation calling on the Pennsylvania State Legislature to update the state’s laws to protect all people from discrimination including LGBT people.

While people of faith lift their voices in advocacy, they also lift their voices in worship. A series of ‘Building an Inclusive Church’ trainings are being offered across the state to show congregations how they can go through a healthy process to become welcoming and inclusive of LGBT people. People of faith are powerful when they lift their voices in advocacy as well as in prayer!

Ammon Ripple is the statewide Faith Organizer for Equality Pennsylvania. Since 2014, he has worked with a network of over 625 clergy and 1000 lay people from more than 30 denominations who support LGBT equality in their congregations and communities. After eleven years as a librarian and LGBT activist in Pittsburgh, he received a Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 2010.