CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The American experience includes the continual expansion of our notions of liberty. The transformation necessary to bring additional groups into the freedom experiment has been a point of contention throughout our history. Fortunately, the advancement of individual rights ultimately prevails and those once banned find themselves included in the progression toward a more just society.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. issued a statement for the ages in his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" when he challenged church leaders to consider that "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." He then went on to powerfully state that "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny."
We are now in the midst of societal deliberations on whether to afford basic human rights and dignity to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals. Many who oppose extending rights to the LGBT community base their opposition upon religious conviction. Religious freedom means that individuals and groups have the absolute right to their beliefs and/or interpretation of Scripture and that right must be respected and protected. Nevertheless, history signifies that the quest for freedom eventually makes discrimination toward any group unsustainable. Importantly, public policy must be rooted in fundamental fairness not religious interpretation.
America is at her best when the celebration of differences finds the strength, courage and authority to rebut historical exclusion. As a committed Christian who believes in the Bible and loves the Church, I am intimately aware of how religious writ has been used to support the suppression of outcast groups. For instance, slave traders and accommodating church denominations routinely utilized the Bible to sustain the slave trade and the "peculiar" institution of slavery. Yet today, no reputable denomination or religious group concurs with interpretations of Biblical texts once used to support the suppression of the African-American community.
In the early 20th century, the women's suffrage movement was met with stiff resistance from some religious groups and denominations. The Bible was often quoted during the suffragist debates to deny women the right to vote. Yet today, no reasonable person would restrict women in their right to vote or the freedom to be involved in education or equality in the workplace.
The passage of the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery in 1865 and the Nineteenth Amendment, which was ratified by sufficient states in 1920 and prohibited state or federal sex-based restrictions on voting, changed our nation for the better. While both laws were opposed by some on religious grounds, the Scriptures once used to support these societal exclusions have been historically or grammatically reconsidered under a more in-depth cultural analysis as church and community notions of freedom continued to mature.
Expanding the freedom momentum has also been important throughout the history of West Virginia. Even our motto, Montani Semper Liberi, attests to our devotion to the freedom experiment.
The West Virginia Legislature has considered House Bill 2856, also known as the Employment and Housing Non-Discrimination Act. In short, this bill would advance freedom in that it prohibits the firing from employment or the denial of housing based upon a person's sexual orientation and/or gender identity. It would be a travesty of justice and in opposition to our state's legacy of freedom for this bill to not be enacted.
History will judge us harshly if we fail in our responsibility to expand protection and accessibility for all.
To paraphrase Dr. King, "we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny" and discrimination based upon sexual orientation and gender identity is an injustice to some and therefore a threat to justice for everyone.
Fryson, a lawyer and pastor, is a Gazette contributing columnist and is chief diversity officer for West Virginia University.