Discrimination in Social Services

Embracing Discrimination Does Religion No Favors

  Embracing Discrimination Does Religion No Favors

Years ago when I was a doctoral student at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., I was a teaching assistant for a course called Urban Anthropology. I was talking to the students about community organizing, and one of the points I brought up, something I thought would only require a few minutes of discussion, was the need to form alliances or coalitions with other groups – both religious and nonreligious – in meeting the needs of the community you are serving.

It’s helpful to know some context: We were sitting in a classroom, in a pristine, rural setting, filled with students, many of whom had done little work in urban or poor areas. Still, even in that setting, I was stunned to watch the conversation among the students devolve into establishing a list of requirements that they would force other organizations to adhere to before they entered into any kind of partnership with them. And yes, the list of requirements they came up with was entirely based on a rigid understanding of theological doctrines.

To say the least, I was disheartened – until I realized, after the class had ended, that none of the students had any real previous experience caring for poor people. Thus, it was easy to think more about who you would choose to work with rather than the crushing reality of what life is like for those trapped in poverty. Once you are caring for people whose lives are a struggle every day, you quickly stop worrying about what the person laboring alongside you believes; all that matters is if they are genuinely willing to share the load. Considering how difficult it is to walk alongside someone coming out of poverty, theological views simply fail to be as important as that person’s liberation.

I thought about all of this when I read about the Trump administration’s latest efforts to “protect” Christians from having to be inclusive in whom they serve: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ decision to allow South Carolina foster care agencies to refuse to work with anyone they deem to be the “wrong” religion. Essentially, this gives permission to a conservative Christian agency called Miracle Hill Ministries, which is South Carolina’s largest faith-based provider of social services, to discriminate in choosing families to provide loving homes to children in need.

This move is more evidence, if any was needed, that this administration has sold out to conservative Christian organizations that see their religious identity not in Jesus’ radical love for all people, but rather, in their ability to prohibit people they condemn from attaining certain services and exercising their rights. Likewise, conservative Christian organizations have sold out to the man in the Oval Office in order to gain the power to carry out their mission to discriminate.

Consider what happened here: A Jewish woman wanted to mentor children in Miracle Hill’s care. Because she would not sign a theologically rigid doctrinal statement, she was denied the opportunity to make a difference in a child’s life. It is honestly difficult to fathom how an organization that wants the children it serves to experience love and uplift would block anyone eager to do that.  

The problem is that some conservative Christians care more for their theological doctrines than they do for people in need. And this is why some Christians are, unfortunately, becoming known more for discriminating against certain groups than for loving all people.

Miracle Hill may do some important work, but it will now be more known for discriminating against Jewish people and people of other faiths than for loving people. A lot of folks I know would argue that if you’re preventing people from loving children, that cancels out any good works you might also do.

Perhaps the saddest thing is that there is an easy fix for these conservative religious groups. Go ahead and believe whatever you want; no one wants to change you. And when you raise your own money for your ministry, have all of the theological tests you want for those who work for you. But especially when you receive taxpayer money, allow the rest of us to believe what we want and to still come alongside you and work to share the love that resides in us.

This is the only way to a win-win. Everyone gets to believe what they want, and, most importantly, the children are loved. There really is nothing more important, is there?

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The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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