Participating in a city council meeting can be intimidating. And the intimidation factor is magnified when a controversial issue is on the agenda. Such was the case in Bowling Green last Tuesday when the city commission had a special working session to discuss the proposed sexual orientation and gender identity nondiscrimination ordinance.
I was one of a dozen that spoke against it. Fifty-two, including many college students and a mostly younger demographic, argued that without the law people could be arbitrarily fired from a job or kicked out of their rented dwellings for simply being homosexual or identifying with the sex opposite of their biological gender.
It was interesting that both sides resorted to Scripture to support their case. One young college student who identified as a Christian felt that his religion was being "weaponized"to use against him. It was was a tense moment.
I stayed as long as possible, but with 30 more speakers to go and with my family waiting for me at home over an hour away, I needed to leave. Many friends left during the break and I hate to admit, left me a little afraid. Earlier in the evening, my face was plastered on a screen in the overflow room downstairs where proponents gathered and saw me testify. I'd have to walk through that crowd and back to my car. In the dark. Alone. I managed a few glares but made it safely back to my car.
It dawned on me that I wasn't the only person who was afraid. My opponents were fearful as well. Real fear of losing a job, of being kicked out their rental, being maligned in society. There is no doubt that many believe the proposed ordinance would shield them from such threats.
As real as their fears, I argued that the ordinance was unnecessary and actually strikes fear into another class of people. Graphic designers, florists, photographers and bakers fear they will lose their businesses if they stand for their convictions. All across the country some choose to stand while others give in to the fear.
Speaking in favor of the ordinance was a young man who suffered a hostile work environment and ended up losing his job. I was moved as I listened to his story. In his suffering, I discovered common ground where I can stand with him when it comes to hostility in the workplace. Shouldn't we all stand in the gap if presented with a similar situation? Wouldn’t the better solution be for each of us to act as an immediate ally against injustice in the workplace and stand with a co-worker bullied or maligned on the job?
The common bond every person in the council meeting shared is that each are created in the image of God and endowed with dignity. People of goodwill may disagree on whether special SOGI protections are needed, but all can agree that no human being should be demeaned, ridiculed or marginalized.
We can learn from Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan where two Jewish religious leaders passed a wounded man lying on the side of the road. He was eventually helped by a Samaritan—the people group despised by Jewish leaders. Jesus challenged the prevailing definition of a true neighbor and upended their categories by using someone different than them to make a point about true righteousness. Jesus shows that active compassion for the suffering is tantamount to the faith and integral to being a good neighbor.
In the end, isn’t this battle about being a good neighbor?
The people I know that have spoken against this ordinance in Bowling Green don’t want to see anyone marginalized or hurt because of their sexual orientation. But they don’t want to see people of faith compelled to violate their conscience when it comes to participating in an event that violates their religious convictions either. SOGI laws make no room for such distinctions. I hope others can see this too.
Richard Nelson is executive director of the Commonwealth Policy Center.