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Indiana Church Opposed State's Earlier Religious Liberty Law


The national outcry against Indiana's religious freedom law included many people in Indiana; among them, people of faith. The groups who protested included a church led by our next guest.

SHARON WATKINS: I'm the Reverend Dr. Sharon Watkins, general minister and president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

INSKEEP: Why did the measure bother you to begin with?

WATKINS: Well, it bothered us for two reasons. One, I'll say, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is a very strong proponent of religious freedom. And as a result we're extremely diverse, all the way from the most conservative you can imagine to the most liberal or progressive. And it's because of our strong value for freedom - for people to explore the Scriptures and to understand the calling that God has on their particular lives. What bothered us about the RFRA was twofold - one, that it adds language that refers to businesses instead of just to individuals. So whereas we would be strong proponents of individual religious freedom, when it gets given to businesses then all of a sudden it's not about Sabbath keeping and home-schooling and religious rituals anymore. It's about jobs and housing and commerce. And so the concern was that it opened the door to a kind of discrimination that we have said as a nation, and that we say as a church, is not what represents us. So our concern was that if we had an assembly in Indianapolis, we wouldn't be 100 percent certain that all of our members and all of their diversity would be treated with dignity and respect by all of the businesses. And so we felt that we had to speak up because we as a state can do better than that.

INSKEEP: The Disciples of Christ came to my attention because you had announced that you were going to cancel this 2017 gathering in Indianapolis. And what was remarkable about that for me was you are headquartered in Indiana and you were going to cancel the national meeting in Indiana. And I thought that is the rough equivalent of a soldier calling in artillery fire on his own position. That's a remarkable thing to do.

WATKINS: It's been painful, but we felt that this particular law, offered in the way it was, opened a door to potential discrimination by businesses that left us simply not comfortable. We felt that we needed to make a decision right away.

INSKEEP: How has your church over the last 20 or 30 years dealt with the national evolution over gay rights and then gay marriage?

WATKINS: Well, it's been challenging for us. As I said, we're remarkably diverse, so it's been quite a conversation.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm interested because we had a Southern Baptist pastor on the program yesterday from Indiana who strongly favored the original religious freedom law in Indiana and reads the Bible to tell him that homosexuality is wrong. If you have a diverse grouping in your church, you must have a lot of discussions with people who tell that to you, that the Bible forbids this.

WATKINS: Yes, that is one of the words that is heard for sure. A couple of years ago, we had quite a discussion on this, and I can't say that we came to consensus. But we acknowledge that just as we think and understand that Jesus welcomes all in love that we have to try to do the same. And so we just struggle to learn from our disagreement about the power of God's love to hold us together, even when our opinions would seem to tear us apart.

INSKEEP: Let me ask a cynical question, or a cynical sounding question, perhaps - do you think the groundswell of opposition to this law in Indiana was based on a sincere belief in fairness and justice for all, or was it partly or mostly based in embarrassment and a fear of losing money because the state looked so bad nationally?

WATKINS: Well, put that way, it does sound cynical. I think that anything that we do is a mixture of motivations. And sometimes when we see ourselves in someone else's mirror, it tells us something that we wouldn't have known otherwise. For us to rise up and say no, that's not who we are - if it took this moment for us to say it more clearly, I don't see anything wrong with that.

INSKEEP: The Reverend Dr. Sharon Watkins is general minister and president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.