The Rt. Rev. Larry Benfield, bishop of the Arkansas diocese of the Episcopal Church, has shared with his flock what he told Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s office after it inquired what further statements he might plan after recent legislative action on bills pertaining to religion and treatment of gay people in Arkansas.

Hutchinson, you’ll recall, after first favoring the most punitive version of a bill meant to give broad religious excuses for discrimination against gay people, signed a somewhat narrower bill but has so far backed off issuing any form of executive proclamation that defends non-discrimination in state employment. A draft proclamation provided no specific mention of gay people and even said only that the state would “comply” with applicable law. Applicable law provides NO protection against discrimination on sexual orientation or gender identity grounds.

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Benfield makes clear that the state still needs to take specific action to prevent discrimination. His letter to Arkansas church members:

A Message from Bishop Benfield

Speaking Out

In some ways, it appears that the dust has settled on the debate over House Bill 1228, the effort that many people of faith, including your bishop, saw as an attempt to support discrimination under the guise of religious liberty. It was this bill, and the accompanying bill that became Act 137 (to prohibit local governments from enacting anti-discrimination ordinances) that this year’s Diocesan Convention had objected to through a resolution that it overwhelmingly passed back in February.

It is important to remember that the dust has not indeed settled. The governor’s office has contacted my office to see what next statement I might be making. My reply has been in the form of a letter to the governor, asking him to do three things:

1. Issue an executive order to prohibit discrimination in state agencies on the basis of sexual orientation.

2. Seek the future enactment of legislation to prohibit such discrimination by employers throughout the state.

3. Speak in favor of the effort to repeal Act 137 through a voter initiative.

As I said in the letter, discrimination is immoral, especially when done in the name of religion. There is a theological underpinning to this statement, an underpinning that is especially appropriate to bring into the conversation during Easter season. Those post-resurrection appearances in the New Testament so often involved seeing the resurrected Christ in the form of some of the most unlikely of people, for example, gardeners and travelers on dusty roads.

When we see the resurrected Christ in our own age, it is often in the form of the most marginalized of people. I hope that when we speak out against discrimination, we do so not just as a good business decision, but as a theological issue: we want the world to see the risen Christ and thus experience resurrection in their own lives. When we do so, Easter starts making a lot more sense.

The governor’s office has presumably reached out to other religious leaders. Other responses would be interesting on the core matter of whether the state should preserve legal discrimination in employment and other aspects of life. Messages from other church leaders — the Catholic bishop would be interesting in that he’s intervened before the Arkansas Supreme Court to oppose same-sex marriage but serves a church whose pope has made some ameliorating remarks about gay people — are gratefully received here.


UPDATE: I see Catholic Bishop Anthony Taylor wrote April 2 in praise of the governor’s “wisdom and prudence” in signing the revised discrimination bill.  On the key question, he wrote:

“There are some who view the Arkansas Religious Freedom Restoration Act as an attempt to condone invidious discrimination against LGBT persons based on religious beliefs, which the Catholic Church strongly opposes and which the Arkansas Religious Freedom Restoration Act does not in fact do. Choosing not to participate in certain ceremonies or activities due to religious convictions is not discrimination against the persons involved, nor is it necessarily an expression of hatred toward the persons involved. Rather, it is very simply a choice to abstain from participating in conduct or actions that may be irreconcilable with one’s sincere religious beliefs, and it is the right to abstain from these actions which the Arkansas Religious Freedom Restoration Act seeks to protect. The Catholic Church teaches and believes that all persons (including LGBT persons) have an inherent worth and dignity, and that all persons, precisely because they are persons, should be accorded dignity and respect.”

My comment: To fail to support an end to legal discrimination is to support discrimination. The concentration on participation in religious ceremonies (even if selling flowers or cakes be such) is only a diversionary tactic from the law’s failure to provide non-discrimination in secular employment, housing and all public accommodations to LGBTQ people. The RFRA may not specifically defend this (though many think it does), but it does nothing to prevent it.