Institute on Religion and Democracy
August 24, 1999
Laws and regulations prohibiting "discrimination" based on sexual orientation are fueling some of the sharpest skirmishes within America's culture wars. A New Jersey Supreme Court ruling against the Boy Scout's ban on homosexual Scout leaders has gained the most publicity of late. But a public spate between one of America's largest parachurch ministries and largest banks, along with a intra-denominational dispute over same-sex couples at a church camp, further illustrate the starkness of the battle lines.
James Dobson's Colorado-based Focus on the Family is one of the nation's largest Christian ministries, with 1300 employees and an annual budget of $112 million. Any large banking firm would presumably covet a request to manage the ministry's charitable gift annuity.
But not the Pittsburgh-based Mellon Bank, which huffily rebuffed Focus' approach, citing the bank's policy of non-discrimination based on "sexual orientation." Dobson's group is one of the nation's leading opponents of same-sex "marriage" and of public school curriculae that advocate acceptance of homosexual practice.
Not one to shy away from controversy, Dobson took to the airwaves against the $2.4 trillion-asset banking giant, urging his 3 to 4 million radio listeners to phone Mellon Bank with complaints of its own discrimination against a Christian ministry because of its beliefs.
Apparently inundated with phone calls from around the nation, Mellon demanded an apology and threatened legal action against Focus if the campaign did not end. But as the complaints and media interest continued, Mellon relented and offered its services to Dobson's group, claiming a "misunderstanding" had divided the organizations.
Mellon told Focus that it would "consider" a business arrangement with the ministry so long as the bank is not expected to compromise its policy regarding sexual orientation. No thanks, said Focus, which publicly declared that it had never made an issue of Mellon's employment practices.
"What they basically told us is they'll do business with us if we quit beating our wife," explained a miffed spokesman for Dobson. "Well, we didn't beat our wife, and we never beat our wife..." Focus was looking for a bank with financial prowess, not necessarily conservative views. Ironically, Focus said it would take its business to the San Francisco-based Wells Fargo Company, which must comply with that city's ordnance against discrimination based on sexual orientation.
In another situation involving less corporate fire power but no less emotion, a United Methodist camp near Chicago is battling with its own denominational officials for refusing to rent a cabin to a same-sex couple.
The Historic Methodist Campground at Des Plaines dates back to the 1850's, when it fueled some of the great revivals of the pre-Civil War mid-west. More sedate and less prone to fiery revivalism now, the camp is the host of mostly older Methodists looking for a quiet get away from the Chicago suburbs.
Last year a male couple with a four-year-old foster child rented a cabin at the camp, and later wrote a letter of thanks that was published in the camp newsletter. Many residents and trustees were troubled that the church camp had hosted and sanctioned a less than traditional "family." The Board of Trustees refused to rent the cottage to the couple for a second summer.
Although the trustees thought they were upholding the beliefs of their own denomination, their local church leaders disagreed. The liberal-dominated Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church launched an investigation. Led by a bishop who opposes his denomination's official opposition to homosexual practice and same-sex unions, the regional church body was troubled by allegations of discrimination against a same-sex couple.
Pro-homosexual clergy from throughout northern Illinois were encouraged to attend and even to vote at the camp's Board of Trustees meeting this summer. Expecting a large and hostile crowd who might attempt a take-over of the facility, the camp had two dozen police officers and several police dogs surrounding its gates, barring entry to all but cottage owners and trustees.
Only about 40 ministers and church leaders actually showed up outside the locked gates. But the heavy police presence fueled anger and generated publicity throughout the 8.4 million member United Methodist denomination. "This is unholy ground," pronounced an infuriated Dwight Stewart, who pastors a Chicago-area church.
He and others in the regional church hierarchy are urging Methodist clergy to refuse to preach at the campground. And they are taking their allegations to Cook County's Commission on Human Rights, which is charged with enforcing a local ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. The law, however, exempts religious organizations.
A camp spokesperson denies the Methodist camp discriminates against anyone. "We only ask that all come for the religious and spiritual purposes to which this camp ground has been dedicated for some 140 years," she said in a statement on behalf of the trustees.
Both sides are appealing to church law. The United Methodist Church officially disapproves of homosexual practice. But the church also officially opposes any discrimination based on sexual orientation, even though church law itself discriminates by refusing to ordain practicing homosexuals into the ministry.
As resentment increases between the camp and its regional church hierarchy, camp leaders now wonder if they will have to officially disassociate from the United Methodist Church, after nearly a century and a half of historic partnership.
The Historic Methodist Camp and Focus on the Family have been victimized by misbegotten rules regarding non-discrimination based on "sexual orientation." Like many traditionalists, they do not seek to "impose" their beliefs but establish standards for their own communities. They rightly complain of discrimination aimed against them, but often fail to challenge the inherent injustice of any regulation equating diverse sexual practices with morally neutral traits such as race or gender.
If conservatives are to prevail in the culture wars, they will have to more effectively rebut the Left's spurious claim that "gay rights" is the natural successor to the Civil Right Movement.