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“Countering Public Perceptions of Religion: Faith Communities in Support of LGBT Equality” by Michelle Lin

Beneath the heated political debates between interest groups arguing for and against same-sex marriage, there has been a gradual change in public opinion. Today, the percentage of people who believe homosexual couples should have the same marriage rights as heterosexual couples has doubled to 53 percent, as compared to 1996, from a December USA/Gallup Poll.[1] Surveys conducted in 2011 by the Pew Forum[2] and the Washington Post-ABC News[3] poll also reflect the growing public approval rating for gay marriage in America. This brings to light a monumental shift in societal attitudes towards LGBT individuals, where for the first time in history, the majority of Americans now show approval for same-sex marriage. This coincides with President Obama’s inaugural speech in January of 2013, where he proclaimed, “our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.”[4]  The President’s bold statement comes at a moment in history where nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage. The large increase in tolerance for LGBT rights within the general population has had spillover effects into the attitudes of the faithful. In reality, there exists a diversity of opinion concerning the morality of same-sex relations, and it is a common misconception religious affiliates remain largely intolerant of homosexuality.

Since the 1990s, church attendance and participation in organized religion altogether among young Americans has significantly declined, compared to previous generations.[5] Altogether, more and more individuals are choosing to be labeled under the category of “nones.”  From his ongoing research on declining civil engagement amongst America’s youth, Putnam predicts church attendance would largely increase amongst “nones” if religion were not associated with “far right political views.”[6] Even among many religious groups, it is believed negative messages from places of worship contribute a large part to the higher rates of suicide amongst LGBT youth.[7] Given the substantial impact church disapproval has upon LGBT individuals, it is imperative messages condemning the “abnormality” in homosexual orientation are not the only ones in public light.

Today, progressive churches have distanced themselves from Fundamentalists, religious extremists from the Christian Right, and biblical literalists, who have traditionally shown themselves to be unaccommodating to change and progress.  Within the scope of biblical inerrancy is a fundamental prejudice against homosexuality that has long divided the LGBT and religious community. In regards to the gay rights movement, Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals typically oppose gay rights, and homophobia is a reoccurring force in the Christian Right.[8] In the past, the Christian Right has raised “pro-family” campaigns that enforce heterosexuality and oppose “unnatural” behavior. The Religious Right has proliferated hostility towards gays, lesbians, liberals and secular people through hundreds of Christian radio and television broadcasters of the National Religious Broadcasters association.[9] With the help of mass media tools, such as radio and television networks, this group has come to define and lead the Religious Right to greater extremes and ally themselves with the political right.[10] Studies show there have been inaccurate portrayals of religious people in the media. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation’s media reference guide for journalists on religion and faith begins by presenting the “common myth” that “LGBT equality is universally opposed by people of faith.”[11] In their study, Missing Voices, GLAAD undergoes an in-depth analysis of how religious voices are framed in mainstream media surrounding the topic of LGBT equality. This study is pivotal in showing how a biased media can magnify and perpetuate misconceptions surrounding people of faith.


Results reveal Evangelicals are consulted at a higher rate by media sources than their population in the nation would demand. This is important to note, because Evangelicals are largely fundamentalist in their beliefs and thus, are opposed to marriage equality based on their religious views. Many high-profile Fundamentalist leaders such as Pat Robertson and Fred Phelps, and conservative groups such as the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family spread anti-gay views through media. All in all, three-quarters of all religiously affiliated messages were discovered to be opposed to LGBT equality. Mainstream media showcased far fewer religious sources from Mainline Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish sources, whose messages were predominantly positive.[12] This is disappointing to see, given many groups within these denominations such as Dignity/USA (LGBT Catholics), Reconciling Ministries Network (LGBT Methodists), Integrity (LGBT Episcopalians), More Light Presbyterians, and the World Congress of GLBT Jews do welcome LGBT and gay clergy, but are not sufficiently represented in the media.[13] On the other hand, media outlets continuously used sources from Evangelical organizations to comment on LGBT issues, even though those messages were largely more negative than positive.[14] This being said, the majority of positive messages documented in stories came from non-affiliated sources. This study uncovers the disproportionate reliance on anti-LGBT commentary from religious institutions. By having news outlets with higher proportions of anti-gay religious sources in their articles, the message that religion is “against gays” is perpetuated. These results reveal the heavy influence of religious anti-LGBT equality proponents within media, and how LGBT stories have largely been set in a ‘gays versus religion’ framework thus far. By constantly being overrepresented in the media as negative towards LGBT issues, and underrepresented in pro-gay stories, existing social biases are allowed to persist. This one-sided portrayal of religion within the media can help explain the inaccurate cultural assumptions many hold towards religious institutions, as well as LGBT people. This framing of “gays versus religion” is crucial to address, because it affects how people come to understand LGBT people and it defines what it means to be moral or religious. Despite the fact extremist views do not characterize all people of faith, common knowledge has become associated with conservative attitudes almost instinctively, and media has played a large role in perpetuating this notion.


The LBGT community is currently fighting on many policy fronts, such as same-sex marriage, civil unions, gay adoption rights, and antidiscrimination legislation. Within the fight for same-sex marriage, many challenges remain for LGBT individuals. The federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), passed in 1996, defines marriage as a union between man and woman, and prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages that may be granted in the state. Joint tax returns and government healthcare benefits are just two of the 1,138 federal benefits given to those in heterosexual marriages, but denied to same-sex couples through DOMA.[15] Furthermore, variance in state laws prevents marriages and civil unions granted in one state from being recognized in other.[16] In light of these persisting inequalities, it remains important to acknowledge that attitudinal shifts towards LGBT equality in America have been embraced by both faithful and secular.


Alongside increases in public approval of LGBT equality, progressive religious organizations and activists have also emerged in support of LGBT rights and same-sex marriage. Against conventional wisdom, there are individuals working on reconciliation with LGBT groups, leading the way for progress and aiding the LGBT community in securing equality. With faith groups increasingly showing their support on divisive LGBT issues, we begin to see a vast difference of opinions amongst people of faith in America.

The work achieved thus far in the LGBT movement, with the help of communities of faith, presents an opportunity to dispel inaccurate assumptions surrounding religion as a whole. Rise in support from progressive religious groups has played a pivotal role in softening public perception on LGBT issues by countering conservative religious opposition with a moral argument. This is done through presenting a moral case for equality, showing public support for gay marriage initiatives, and strategically collaborating with secular groups on the issue. Voices of faith are needed to combat the anti-gay movement, which centers largely on conservative religious arguments.

Regardless of a particular denomination’s “official” position towards same-sex marriage, faithfuls in and out of the pews are demonstrating their true attitudes towards same-sex marriage. Increase in religious support for same-sex marriage has been a key factor in breaking down religious opposition to LGBT equality. However, unless voices of faith gain greater visibility, whether in the media or through meaningful collaborations with LGBT activists, the incongruity between public perception and reality will continue to hinder the LGBT movement. Though religious institutions within themselves are widespread and diverse in their level of tolerance, strategic mobilization and alliances between the LGBT and faith communities have played a crucial role in changing traditional portrayals of faith and are critical to the LGBT movement.



To begin, declarations compiled by Pew Forum on individual denominations and their official stance towards same-sex marriage[17] will provide information to contrast official church creed with public polls conducted by The Pew Research Center For The People & The Press and Pew Forum On Religion & Public Life on the topic of homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey[18] conducted by the Pew Forum On Religion & Public Life, from May 8 to August 13, 2007, will gage support for homosexuality by religious institutions. This survey encompasses a representative sample of 35,308 people over 18 years of age, who self-reported their religious identity. Those surveyed were categorized under one of 14 religious affiliations, including evangelical churches, mainline churches, historically Black churches, Catholic, Mormon, Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witness, Other Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, other faiths and unaffiliated. For the classification of Protestant denominations, those individuals were grouped into a denominational family under one of three major particular religious traditions, including evangelical Protestant churches, mainline Protestant churches, and historically black Protestant churches. Limitations to this survey included religious ambiguity and vague denominational affiliation and language barriers for those who did not speak English or Spanish. On the topic of homosexuality, two statements were presented to participants to choose from. One statement read, “Homosexuality is a way of life that should be accepted by society,” and the other read, “Homosexuality is a way of life that should be discouraged by society.”[19] Using this poll will differentiate between different religious traditions on their views towards homosexuality, as well as the differences between official church stances on same-sex marriage and that of their respective congregations. In addition, a survey report focusing specifically on Catholic attitudes towards gay and lesbian issues will be utilized to better understand the makeup of a specific denomination.


To show changing attitudes on gay marriage among people of different religions, the Late October 2012 Political Survey,[20] conducted between October 24th and 28,th and the 2012 Values Survey,[21] conducted between April 4th and 15th by The Pew Research Center For The People & The Press, will be assessed. Participants in the survey were contacted via random digit dialing by Princeton Data Source interviewers under the research firm, Princeton Survey Research Associates International. The political survey included 2,008 participants while the values survey consisted of a national sample of 3,008 adults, over the age of 18. 1,805 respondents were interviewed on a landline, and 1,203 were interviewed via cell phone, making up a 60-40 ratio of landline to cell phone responses. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. Data from previous years, starting from 2001, represented annual totals of polls conducted in each respective year. Within the surveys, question 45 of the political survey and question 21 of the Values Survey asked, “Do you strongly favor, oppose, or strongly oppose allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally?” Survey results will demonstrate the decline in opposition to gay marriage by those of faith has indeed mirrored the national shift in attitudes across all adults noted earlier.

Next, the important role of faith in countering conservative religious arguments will be examined to determine whether presenting an effective moral line of reasoning was necessary for the success of the LGBT movement. If support of the faithful were not crucial to the LGBT movement, there would be no need for organizations to work together to build campaigns. In order to assess the necessity of partnerships between faithful and secular advocates, two case studies surrounding faith-based messaging will be examined. The Center for American Progress (CAP), a nonpartisan progressive think-tank, published a 2009 report profiling Michigan’s 2004 battle over marriage equality. Titled “The Faithful Divide Over Wedding Vows,”[22] this report investigated the battle over Proposal 2, a state constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage. Though the proposal passed with close to 60 percent support, the lessons learned from the battle serve to help future campaigns. Exploration of campaign tactics and alliances utilized by both sides in the debate reveal why LGBT advocates were unable to prevent the amendment’s passage.

In the same year, the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce released a report analyzing the 2008 “No on Proposition 8” campaign in California, and the implications for future pro-LGBTQQIA religious organizing.[23] A Time to Build Up analyzed the convening and survey data of 32 California and national experts in pro-LGBTQQIA religious organizing at the National Religious Leadership Roundtable held in Pasadena, CA on January 15th-16th of 2009. Those at the conference were de-briefed on the passage of Proposition 8, a proposal that prohibited same-sex marriages in California. Those participating in the Pasadena convening also completed a preparatory survey with answers to the questions, “What does the LGBTQQIA community need to understand about people of faith and how they relate to their communities?” and “How would this impact the movement?”[24] In Voelkel’s study, the author assumed pro-LGBTQQIA religious and secular organizers shared a common set of values and vision for equality.[25] Study results provide key lessons on the role of religion on sides of opposition and support for the Proposition 8 and the LGBT movement as a whole.

Under the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative, a program of CAP, Thistlethwaite and Cook undertook two years of research involving individual phone interviews with LGBT allies, advocates and faith leaders.[26] This case study showcased an example of a religious state whose LGBT activists have had success in using moral frameworks to oppose religiously based opposition. This study revealed the importance of faith voices in changing the “gays vs. faith” mentality many individuals carry on this issue.

Last but not least, this study examined the “Welcoming Church movement” and the curriculum created by United Church of Christ (UCC) under their commitment to being a “welcoming and affirming” church. This curriculum was built to provide ministry tools to those of faith who support marriage equality and LGBT justice. Analysis of the “welcoming” program demonstrated the extent to which churches have embraced LGBT people and the effectiveness of their ministry. Together, these resources uncovered the beginning reconciliation between religious and secular individuals and revealed the growing tolerance of LGBT lifestyles among people of faith.


Poll Data

In regards to religious groups’ official positions on same-sex marriage, American Baptists, Anglicans, Buddhists, Catholics, Mormons, Evangelicals, Hindus, Muslims, Orthodox Jews, Lutheran-Missouri Synods, Southern Baptists, and United Methodists do not condone same-sex relations.[27] Those who have issued official acceptance of either civil unions or same-sex marriage include Episcopalians, Unitarians, Evangelical Lutherans, Reform Jews, Reconstructionist Jews, and those from the United Church of Christ. Though there are many more denominations who do not condone same-sex marriage, it is important to recognize this debate cannot be portrayed in black and white terms. The governing bodies of each religion realize much division exists between the congregations and the denomination’s leadership. These internal fissures in ideology have led to many denominational splits, such as within the Baptist, Catholic, United Methodists, and Presbyterian communities. Though the process of sanctioned acceptance is long-winded and complicated in nature, open congregations and churches on the ground seem to be the driving force behind change in the viewpoints of their governing leadership. This hunch can be drawn from the internal conflict between local laities and the official policies of their denomination, as well as the polling data to come. These next surveys will portray a clearer picture of where the common religious stand in their attitudes towards homosexuality and same-sex marriage.


Although many people of faith identify themselves as politically conservative, ideological identity varies greatly across religious groups. In the debate over homosexuality, 76 percent of Jehovah’s Witnesses, 68 percent of Mormons, 64 percent of evangelical churches, and 61 percent of Muslims interviewed in the study discouraged homosexual lifestyles. However, the majority of other religious groups, including Catholics, Mainline churches, Buddhists, and Jews voiced acceptance of homosexuality.[28] This pluralism across faith ideology may seem as a surprise due to the hostility commonly documented in the media highlighting moral and biblically grounded objections from people of faith. Even though Evangelicals are the primary components of the Religious Right, many other sects become grouped under the umbrella of “Christian Conservatives” regardless of their beliefs on certain political issues. Part of this misconception may be due to the media biases noted earlier in the Missing Voices study. All in all, Figure 1 illustrates the plurality of beliefs people carry towards homosexuality and the wide variance across religious denomination.


Opposition to gay marriage has declined in the last two presidential elections, across most party lines and most notably, regardless of religious affiliation. The only exception is within white evangelicals, who maintain a 78 percent opposition to gay marriage from 2008 into April of 2012.[29] White mainline Protestants and white Catholics surveyed by the Pew Research Center exhibit a decline in opposition to gay marriage each election year since 2004. This indicates some religious groups have been following the trend of the general public and have increased their tolerance within the past decade.  In another survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, compilations of changing attitudes on gay marriage show a significant and steady rise in the percent of people who favor same-sex marriage, broken across five religious groups.[30] Although the religiously unaffiliated lead the way, with an overwhelming 73 percent in favor, the biggest increase in support from 2001 to 2012 came from white Mainline Protestants. In Figure 2, White mainline Protestants show a jump of 14 percent in those eleven years, with Catholics following closely behind, with an increase of 13 percent. This translates to 53 percent of Catholics and 52 percent of White mainline Protestants in favor of same-sex marriage. Although the changes in attitude were much smaller for the other religious groups, attitudes rose across all groups over time. Black Protestants increased 5 percent, equivalent to 35 percent in favor, while white Evangelical Protestants demonstrated a 6 percent increase, amounting to 19 percent in favor of same-sex marriage. The growing alignment of public opinion and religious voices on the topic of same-sex marriage shows incredible progress achieved thus far and reflects an attitudinal shift towards acceptance of LGBT across Americans as a whole. Once again, it is necessary to point out the discrepancy existing between those in the church hierarchy and those in the pews. Even as the church becomes more dogmatic in their creed, as seen with Pope Benedict’s reverence towards conservative Catholicism, members in various congregations are displaying quite a different tune.

Furthermore, a closer look at Catholic attitudes towards same-sex marriage show an even higher approval than the general public. Cox and Jones[31] investigated catholic attitudes on gay and lesbian issues and discovered Catholics were the biggest Christian group in support of legally recognizing same-sex relationships.[32] Close to three-quarters of Catholics favor allowing same-sex couples to marry or form civil unions, while only 22 percent believe there should be no legal acknowledgment of a gay relationship. Despite this evidence, it is important to recognize the divisions amongst Catholics across age and frequency of attendance. Catholics under the age of 35 are much more likely to support gay marriage, compared to those over the age of 65. This mirrors the attitudes of the rising “nones,” a religiously unaffiliated group of young Millenials who typically support progressive issues. This also makes sense in the context that older people of faith have been raised in traditional doctrine for a longer period of time, and thus, it is much harder for older religious people to revert to a more progressive faith. Another stark difference comes from variance in church attendance. Those who worship “less often,” who make up 41 percent of those in the study, are the most likely to support same-sex marriage, with 59 percent in favor.[33] On the other hand, only 26 percent of those who attend services weekly show support for same-sex marriage. Although this figure is smaller in comparison to less frequent churchgoers, it is important to note only 31 percent of this group believe there should be no legal recognition whatsoever. With a combined 61 percent majority of Catholics interviewed in this study citing an attendance of “once or twice a month” or “less often,” it becomes crucial to recognize the overarching pattern of religion in America and the distinct relationship between religious attendance and attitudes towards same-sex marriage. The 61 percent of Catholics with less religious attendance largely represents the landscape of Catholicism in America. The bulk of those surveyed in these polls, who self-identify as Catholic, show an increasing tolerance towards LGBT. This makeup of the Catholic faith in America provides a key insight into the stark gap between those in leadership positions and the Catholics within the general population. This is an important component in explaining the misconception that religious groups are against gays. Nevertheless, the increase in tolerance and shift towards greater approval does not necessarily equate to strong legal support in that direction, which can explain why proposals banning same-sex marriage succeeded in many states.

Role of Faith-Based Messaging

To the surprise of many, there are organizations that have mediated and encouraged the communication between faith and LGBT groups. The Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative, launched by the Center for American Progress, is one of many programs that monitors the progress and collaboration between religious and LGBT communities.[34] In a 2009 report on Michigan’s battle over marriage equality, Steenland and Duffy reveal key insights into the organizing strategies and campaign tactics that were effective and ineffective in opposing Proposal 2, an amendment banning same-sex marriage. Exit polling conducted by CNN[35] revealed over 60 percent of both Catholic and Protestant respondents voted to pass Proposal 2.  The Citizens for the Protection of Marriage (CPM) was the dominant committee in support of the proposal, while the Coalition for a Fair Michigan (CFM) was the main group in opposition. CPM’s funding played a significant factor in their campaign. With more than $1 million dollars contributed by Michigan’s seven Catholic dioceses, the conservative committee raised a total of $1,626,582.[36] In comparison, CFM raised close to $854,200, with the majority of donations coming from the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and the Triangle Foundation.[37] This large discrepancy in monetary funding is one of many reasons why the support of faith groups is helpful in carrying out an effective campaign with sufficient finances.

Though CFM’s campaign was less organized than CPM, the group did attempt collaborating with the Religious Coalition For a Fair Michigan (RCFM) to reach communities of faith. RCFM consisted of over 30 congregations and 100 individual clergy. Additional support from faith traditions came from the Concerned Clergy of Western Michigan, leaders from the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the United Church of Christ, Presbytery of Detroit, Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Detroit, and the state’s four Episcopalian Bishops.[38] Faith groups primarily argued against the proposal by treating the issue as a threat to moral and social justice. An estimated 20 percent of Catholic churches[39] utilized the strategy of silence, by not showing their Cardinal’s video supporting the proposal. Despite the support of notable faith groups on this issue, CFM did not rally their support early enough in the campaign and were not organized in their efforts to unite under a common message. Surprisingly, CFM did not advocate changing minds on the issue of marriage equality. Instead, their core argument was rooted in opposition to the broad language of the proposal and the threat to health insurance for same-sex families. This reflects the primary strategy of LGBT activists at the time, who centered their secular argument on equal rights in order to win the short-term battle in the long war for LGBT rights.

On the other hand, CPM’s methodical organization contributed greatly to the strength of their campaign. By gaining early visibility locally and nationally through radio, television, and online campaigns, CPM was able to reach every county in Michigan. Campaign strategies directly targeted religious communities with signature drives before and after church services and distributed over 1 million flyers to Protestant churches.[40] In addition, by using “pro-family and pro-marriage” arguments, the campaign refrained from explicit anti-gay language while promoting marriage between “one man and woman.”[41] This argument proved to be much stronger in gaining support from Michigan conservatives and religious groups. This furthers the importance of using moral language to expose the immorality of an unjust proposal and combat a moral argument.

Key lessons learned from the 2004 marriage equality campaign revolve around the importance of LGBT and progressive faith leaders collaborating together prior to the start of a campaign, in order to gather substantive financial support, a network of supporters, and greater activism from progressive faith groups.[42] Most importantly, faith language is needed within LGBT campaigns to combat opposing religious voices that monopolize morality in their argument against same-sex marriage. This prevents the framing of LGBT issues as one of “moral values” against secular rights. By strengthening LGBT campaigns with religious messaging, future campaigns can better counter their adversaries. In an interview with Steenland, director of the Faith and Progressive Policy team at CAP, Bishop Gene Robinson voices his support of “a progressive organization that… believes that moral discourse is relevant to these enormous discussions [surrounding LGBT equality].”[43] As the first openly gay Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Robinson realizes firsthand the strength of a moral argument in favor of LGBT equality and warns “progressive people need to pay attention to that, both in terms of changing people’s minds and also in not writing off those who are conservative.” Faith support is necessary to advance the LGBT movement, and faith leaders play a crucial role as individuals who understand the meaning and importance of sacred values.


Similarly, an analysis of the “No on Proposition 8” campaign in California by Rev. Voelkel from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force came upon parallel conclusions. Because religious conservatives largely support Proposition 8 and the majority of anti-LGBT measures, a rights-based argument is insufficient in addressing their platforms.[44] In this study, LGBT advocates carried out a very narrow campaign that isolated faith communities and those of color. The lack of engagement with religious communities resulted in a loss of pro-LGBT religious organizers and a missing values framework with the potential to address religious opponents.[45] Voelkel’s report highlighted the lack of partnerships between LGBT and religious leaders. Without collaborating, LGBT advocates are unable to reach large faith audiences and find common ground in a shared platform for valuing human life and justice. Many people of faith do support a moral argument, and as one religious organizer commented, “Progressive faith leaders must be mobilized to address the religious right wing.”[46]


Both reports indicate the need for a religious voice in the LGBT movement. Though denominations may have official declarations against marriage equality, it is important to realize the viewpoints of those in the pew are not always aligned with that of the hierarchy at the top. Secular-religious partnerships are not only possible, but also critical to the success of LGBT campaigns. Strong alliances can be built around moral equality and social justice issues.

Reverend Marvin Ellison, president of the Religious Coalition Against Discrimination explains, “People of faith in every tradition highly value marriage and also want to strengthen…families, including same-sex couples and their families. Our faith and values give us strong reason to support the freedom to marry for same-sex couples.”[47] The next case study on Tennessee demonstrates how a values argument can effectively combat an opposition grounded in faith and moral values.


Tennessee Case Study

As the fifth most religious state in the country, with over half the population identifying as Evangelical, Tennessee is a particularly important state to study. In order to learn what faith communities and LGBT advocates have accomplished thus far in pursuit of LGBT equality, we must examine and identify key strategies and alliances to take and apply to other states. Thistlewaite and Cook released a 2011 report examining the various faith and LGBT advocacy efforts that either impeded or contributed to LGBT equality. Researchers observed the growing collaboration between LGBT and faith allies on the common moral vision of “inclusiveness, love, respect, and tolerance.”[48] Even as a highly religious state, researchers discovered the “religious-secular divide” in the state is less prominent than others because many LGBT activists are also many of the same who regularly attend church services. Furthermore, religious and nonreligious activists participate in ongoing alliances and well-coordinated collaborations to effectively influence a religious population to greater acceptance of LGBT equality.[49] LGBT activists in the state work individually with churches, depending on their level of LGBT acceptance. By targeting particular faith communities with specific outreach methods, activists can collaborate more effectively and strategize on how to best promote moral equality and LGBT acceptance within that church. “Congregations in transition” were those in the early stage of support, with informal welcoming of LGBT, while “anchor congregations” were those who publically advocated for LGBT equality and openly displayed rainbow banners in church. Many alliances, such as The Reconciling Churches of Middle Tennessee, formed due to an increase in number of inclusive congregations throughout various regions in Tennessee.[50] One challenge activists faced in Tennessee was navigating the “institutional challenges of certain denominations,” in which the hierarchy of the church and their doctrinal teachings prevented many churches from becoming officially supportive of LGBT equality.[51] Similar to earlier implications, the differences between church leadership and church congregations serve as an additional challenge for religious people of faith who seek to support LGBT rights. Having to face judgment by peers and church leaders represent just some of the obstacles many face when expressing their views within a religious community. Many conservative Christians who support LGBT equality stated “need[ing] more training and resources to learn how to ‘defend themselves’” from conservative attacks towards LGBT campaigns, and to “do so from a Christian perspective.”[52] By equipping people of faith with an argument from a religious perspective, more and more will be able to promote LGBT equality to their peers and congregations. From there, public perception of religion can begin to change and shift to reflect an identity of inclusion and tolerance.


In Tennessee, LGBT activists and faith allies collaborated together on creative media campaigns to build religious messaging around equality and combat opposing religious arguments. The successful 2009 billboard campaign, put out by the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center, featured “ministers in support of equality for gay, lesbian and transgender people” and made many people “stop and think about the real people affected by religious bigotry.”[53] Other billboards displayed a lesbian couple holding hands with wedding bands visible, declaring “We’re married and God loves us the way we are.”[54] Creative faith-rooted communication campaigns are effective in promoting the LGBT issue in a framework that invites discussion and a re-evaluation of the issue from a religious perspective. These advertisement campaigns represent an effective example of collaboration happening on both ends and a shared promotion of “positive religious messages for equality.”[55] Gaining faith leaders as allies increases support and counters the “gay vs. faith” framework of their religious opponents. Tennessee’s successes in securing statewide hate crimes legislation and non-discrimination ordinances have largely been attributed to the expanding faith alliances and effective LGBT organizing.[56]


“Welcoming-Church Programs”

Through the Institute for Welcoming Resources (IWR), a program now part of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Reverend Rebecca Voelkel conducted a study of “welcoming” Christian and Unitarian Universalist congregations whose leaders that have adopted Welcoming Church Programs.[57] The term “welcoming” refers to congregations that have undergone an intentional process of welcoming LGBT individuals, through education, a vote, and public declaration.[58] Congregations deemed “welcoming” are typically recognized by an outside organization operating within a particular faith tradition. For example, the Reconciling Ministries Network under the United Methodist Church and the Open & Affirming Ministries of the Christian Church are two programs in their respective faiths that track the growth of these progressive congregations. Though each program carries slight variations in their “welcoming” language, their work in affirming LGBT people and fighting against those who wish to advocate a homophobic church policy are one in the same. The IWR works to promote the full acceptance and participation of all LGBT people into churches across the country through developing, producing, and distributing resources to strengthen the Welcoming Church Movement.[59] This organization is a huge network for movement leaders and provides guidance, curriculum, and toolkits for churches who wish to join the movement. In Voelkel’s study, she surveyed pastors and leaders of 1,200 Welcoming congregations listed on the IWR website, “” Her assessment of the “Welcoming Program” exposed lower levels of conflict within churches that utilized the “Welcoming Process,” compared to those that had not completed the process. This is critical in addressing the concerns of many church leaders, who anticipated “catastrophic conflict within the congregation,” if they adopted the “Welcoming Process.”[60] In reality, only 29 percent reported substantial conflict, with 57 percent of that conflict coming directly from pastoral leadership.[61] Only 16 percent believed homosexuality to be the actual source of conflict.[62] Once again, we see the difference in beliefs between church leadership and church attendees. Resistance to LGBT inclusion and tolerance seem to stem directly from church leaders who fear conflict within their church on the topic of homosexuality. This reinforces where majority of public misconception arises from and introduces the importance of addressing the issue of conflict many religious leaders fear when introducing a new doctrine of tolerance. This study reveals people of faith do support LGBT inclusion and indicates the possibilities for more “welcoming” churches to come.

Within the movement for LGBT inclusion, the United Church of Christ’s Open and Affirming (ONA) program is the largest, with over 1,000 congregations. The church website boldly states, “The United Church seeks to be Multiracial, Multicultural, Open and Affirming, and Accessible to All- A Church where everyone is welcome.”[63] The United Church of Christ (UCC) Coalition is an organization within the church that works specifically on growing the ONA movement and expanding their networks with religious and secular partners.[64] The coalition works to proliferate the ONA message and support churches through the challenging process of adopting the ONA commitment. In a survey of individuals’ personal responses to the reason for ONA, an LGBT person commented, “Support for LGBT rights is probably the most defining sign of an open and progressive religious institution.”[65] Another personal response included, “Gay and lesbian people are so accustomed to being the exception to…‘everyone,’ that they and their loved ones have to overcome a tremendous internal barrier to take a chance on being open to a church.”[66] These responses indicate the importance of intentional and public declarations of support in order to relay true acceptance for LGBT persons within the church. The ONA Program provides support through print resources, personal assistance, trained ONA consultants, workshops, conferences, educational curriculum, and connections to the greater coalition and “Welcoming Church Movement.”[67] This support is necessary for churches who wish to adopt progressive doctrine into their teachings.


On November 16, 1996, the Directorate of the UCC Office for Church in Society passed a resolution affirming equal marriage rights for same-sex couples and declared, “the State should not interfere.”[68] In 2005, the UCC’s General Synod voted to legally acknowledge and advocate for same-sex marriage.[69] To facilitate the exploration of blessing same-sex couples, UCC provides discussion starter packets for churches to directly engage in dialogue surrounding equal marital rights.[70] The equal marital rights resource packet[71] is a 158-page compilation of documents provided by the UCC to address this complex issue and consists of various reports on many topics such as anti-marriage bills, the legal and economic protections at stake with civil marriage, member testimonies, and resolutions passed thus far. Additional resources documenting marriage equality efforts by the UCC are also available online in the form of press releases, articles, books, and audio.[72] These resources are crucial in facilitating conversation and encouraging support from the faithful on this complex and long fought issue. Churches need this support in order to smoothly transition from traditional to progressive ideology. To date, close to 20 percent of UCC congregations have adopted ONA pledges, translating to nearly 250,000 members out of the 1-million-member denomination.[73] This figure is estimated to grow at a rate of 4 congregations a month. The work advanced by the UCC Coalition, in welcoming LGBT members and fighting for their right to marry, is crucial in influencing public perception and changing the monopoly on religion held for decades by those in opposition to LGBT equality. The programs adopted by progressive churches have led the way for the “Welcoming Church Movement” and serve as tangible evidence for the growth in religious support for LGBT equality.



Though it is logical for media outlets to showcase more antagonistic and provoking news, these inaccurate representations harm the image of religion for all people and in the process stereotype religion under an umbrella conservative voice. Because anti-gay stories become plastered across the media, much of the work from progressive faithfuls fail to gain visibility within the public sphere.

Furthermore, Conservative Republicans have traditionally used religion as a lever for support, and in doing so, have often reduced faith in politics to a very narrow set of issues, supported by a misrepresented faith community. Media has propagated Religious Right agendas and increased their influence in society, leading the charge on many agendas including same-sex marriage and abortion.[74] Their efforts to monopolize religion and mobilize values voters have ignited progressive people of faith to step out and offer another framework for faith in political light.


With the help of faith-based messaging, “Welcoming” resources, and growing collaborations with LGBT advocates, people of faith across all religions are stepping out against the Religious Right to reclaim the morals they believe in and to represent a more tolerant, progressive, and supportive religious voice in society. This comes at a groundbreaking time in American history, where societal attitudes reveal greater support for same-sex marriage than opposition, reflecting the direction the nation is headed in regards to LGBT acceptance. A recent breakthrough came on February 26th, 2013, when The New York Times published an article detailing a group of 75 Republicans who signed a brief in support of gay marriage.[75] This brief directly opposes Proposition 8, and once again utilizes a moral language argument to advocate that family values can coincide with marriage equality. Many believe this brief may sway traditional justices to repeal the proposition because it does not aim to persuade “from the perspective of gay rights advocacy.”[76] Those in support of gay marriage are now well aware that a morals-based argument holds much stronger in convincing those who carry traditional beliefs to change their viewpoint. This reinforces the importance and power of a moral argument. Similar to the support of faith groups on this issue outlined in the earlier case studies, the support of Republicans, who are traditionally portrayed as conservative on this issue, amongst many others, is crucial is gaining ground for the LGBT movement.

Investigating into the inaccurate depiction of religious groups within society revealed a vast difference between official church doctrine and the extent faith groups on the ground follow the more conservative ideology of their leadership. Knowing these discrepancies help explain the inaccuracies in public portrayals of religious people. The incongruity between public perception and reality may in fact be due to a hierarchy at the top of an organization that does not in fact reflect what is happening at the ground level, within the rank and file. Though the hierarchical structure of religious institutions is an important avenue to explore in depth to understand the discrepancy, further research beyond the extent of this project is needed in this area.



As one of the most sacred and significant institutions in our society, marriage is historically embedded in both the church and the state. Given this significance, it is natural for religious groups to hold on to traditional marriage, for fear of losing values sacred and dear to them. Nonetheless, progressive churches have led the way in presenting a more inclusive equality and notion of marriage that accepts LGBT individuals while honoring the sacred institution. The question becomes whether churches that stand firm in their opposition become relics over time. Reframing the debate to one of moral equality is essential to the LGBT movement, as well as the sustainability of church practice over time. In order to gain support from faith leaders on this divisive issue, LGBT advocates must embrace a morals-based argument and form strategic alliances. Collaboration between LGBT and faith groups must continue as the future of same-sex marriage is debated in other states. As church groups continue to navigate the intricacies and challenges facing changing traditional doctrine, it is fair to say their support on this issue will remain powerful in aiding the LGBT movement and changing the perception of religion across America. Time will tell whether more denominations and churches follow progressive faith leaders on this potential bipartisan issue and one in which the majority of Americans now support. We, as a body of people, are capable of change and have historically adapted and evolved in our acceptance and tolerance of those different than us. We do not have to look far back to see the progress demonstrated by religious groups that came to accept and then lead the movement for women’s rights and civil rights. Religious institutions and individuals are not exceptions to progress achieved in America. In fact, the future looks promising for the day when religious groups are not perceived as opponents of LGBT equality.



Figure 1. U.S. Landscape Survey

Source: “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,” Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 92,

Figure 2. Broad Declines in Opposition to Gay Marriage

Broad Declines in Opposition to Gay Marriage

Source: More Support for Gun Rights, Gay Marriage than in 2008 or 2004, Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 25 pr 2012,

Figure 3. Successful Billboard Campaign in Tennessee

Successful Billboard Campaign in Tennessee

Source: Memphis Gay and Lesbian Center, 2009 Billboard Campaign for National Coming Out Day

Figure 4. Successful Billboard Campaign in Tennessee

Successful Billboard Campaign in Tennessee 2

Source: Memphis Gay and Lesbian Center, 2009 Billboard Campaign for National Coming Out Day




1. Rev. Rebecca Voelkel. “To Do Justice, A Study of Welcoming Congregations,” National Gay and Lesbian Task
Force, 2009. 4,
2. Chuck Raasch, “Same-sex marriage becoming a uniter- not a divider,” USA Today, January 9, 2013, http://
3. “Changing Attitudes on Gay Marriage,” The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, November 2012, http://
4. “Washington Post-ABC News Poll,” Washington Post, last modified March 14, 2011, http://
5. Catalina Carmia, “Obama presses for gay marriage in inaugual speech,” USA Today, January 22, 2013, http://
6. Dan Harris, “Young Americans Losing Their Religion,” ABC News, May 6, 2009, story?id=7513343&page=1.
7. Harris, “Losing Their Religion,” 1.
8. “Generations at Odds: The Millennial Generation and the Future of Gay and Lesbian Rights,” Public Religion Research Institute, August 29, 2011,
9. “On the Christian Right,” Public Eye, 2010,
10. Michael Lerner, The Left Hand of God, (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 103.
11. Sarah Diamond, Not by Politics Alone: The Enduring Influence of the Christian Right. (New York: Guildford Press, 2000), 213.
12. “GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide- In Focus: Religion and Faith,” GLAAD, May 2010, reference/religionfaith.
13. Debra L. Mason and Catherine E. Rosenholtz, “Missing Voices: A study of religious voices in Mainstream Media reports about LGBT equality.” GLAAD, University of Missouri Center on Religion and Professions. April 11, 2012,
14. “GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide,” 1.
15. Mason & Rosenholtz, “Missing Voices,” 13.
16. Human Rights Campaign, “An Overview of Federal Rights and Protections Granted to Married Couples,” http://
17. “Civil Union vs Marriage,”,
18. “Religious Groups’ Official Positions on Same-Sex Marriage,” The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, December 7, 2012,
19. “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,” Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 92, pdf/report2religious-landscape-study-chapter-2.pdf.
20. “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,” 92.
21. “Late October 2012 Political Survey,” Pew Research Center for the People & The Press, October 28, 2012, 1,
22. “More Support for Gun Rights, Gay Marriage than in 2008 or 2004,” Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, April 25, 2012, 9-11,
23. Jonathan Duffy and Sally Steenland, “The Faithful Divide Over Wedding Vows,” Center for American Progress. May 2009,
24. Rev. Rebecca Voelkel, “A Time to Build Up.” National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce, May 2009, http://
25. Voelkel, “A Time to Build Up,” 19.
26. Voelkel, “A Time to Build Up,” 3.
27. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite and Martha Cook, “Keeping the Faith,” Center for American Progress, January 2011, 26,
28. “Religious Groups’ Official Positions on Same-Sex Marriage,” The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, December 7, 2012,
29. “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,” 92.
30. “More Support for Gun Rights, Gay Marriage than in 2008 or 2004,” Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, April 25, 2012, 5,
31. “Changing Attitudes on Gay Marriage.” The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. November 2012, Slide 3,
32. Robert P. Jones and Daniel Cox, Catholic Attitudes on Gay and Lesbian Issues, Public Religion Research Institute, March 2011,
33. Jones and Cox, “Catholic Attitudes,” 1.
34. Jones and Cox, “Catholic Attitudes,” 7.
35. “Faith and Progressive Policy,” Center for American Progress, view/.
36. CNN, “Ballot Measures / Michigan Proposal 04-2 / Exit Poll,” http:/www/ results/states/MI/I/02/epolls.0.html.
37. Duffy and Steenland, “The Faithful Divide,” 4.
38. Ibid., 6.
39. Ibid., 10.
40. Ibid., 10.
41. Ibid., 5.
42. Ibid., 5.
43. Ibid., 12.
44. Sally Steenland, “An Interview with Gene Robinson,” Center for American Progress, June 20, 2012, http://
45. Voelkel, “A Time to Build Up,” 2.
46. Voelkel, “A Time to Build Up,” 12.
47. Voelkel, “A Time to Build Up,” 19.
48. Alison Amyx, “Christians Lead the Way for Marriage Equality,” Believe Out Loud, November 7, 2012, http://
49. Thistlewaite and Cook, Keeping the Faith, 1.
50. Ibid., 3.
51. Ibid., 17.
52. Ibid., 8.
53. Ibid., 22.
54. Ibid., 18.
55. Ibid., 19.
56. Ibid., 19.
57. Ibid., 4.
58. Rev. Rebecca. Voelkel, “To Do Justice, A Study of Welcoming Congregations,” National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 2009,
59. Voelkel, “To Do Justice,” 4.
60. Ibid.,
61. Ibid., 10.
62. Ibid.
63. Ibid.
64. Congregational United Church of Christ of Arlington Heights, Illinois,
65. “Mission,” The UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns,
66. Why is it necessary to become ONA? The UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns, programs/ona/start/why/.
67. Why is it necessary to become ONA? The UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns, programs/ona/start/why/.
68. Staff Reports, “UCC Open and Affirming churches now number 1000 congregations,” United Church of Christ, February 21, 2012.
69. “UCC Instrumentality Resolutions on Equal Marriage Rights,” The United Church of Christ, 3, http://
70. “Equal Marriage Rights for All,” The United Church of Christ, July 4, 2005, 2005-EQUAL-MARRIAGE-RIGHTS-FOR-ALL.pdf.
71. “Equal Marital Rights,” United Church of Christ,
72. Wider Church Ministries and Justice and Witness Ministries, “Equal Marital Rights Resource Packet,” The United Church of Christ,
73. “Marriage Equality,” United Church of Christ,
74. “Open and Affirming,” Wikipedia, February 10, 2012,
75. Lerner, Left Hand of God, 7.
76. Sheryl Stolberg, “Republicans Sign Brief in Support of Gay Marriage.” The New York Times, February 26, 2013,
77. Stolberg, “Republicans Sign Brief,” 1.


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