Does East Lansing need to have a better dialogue about religious freedom and sexuality?

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The Peoples Church on East Grand River Avenue.

University towns like East Lansing can be pivotal places of self-discovery and debate, but some say a better dialogue is still needed when it comes to religious freedom and sexual identity.

Conversations between churches and the LGBT community can be polarizing. Although roughly 54 percent of U.S. Christians across denominations think homosexuality should be accepted by society, according to a 2014 survey conducted by Pew Research Center, many churches don’t fall into this category.

“In my view, we’re letting the extremes on both sides define this debate and I think what we’re losing is the opportunity to try to find common ground,” said Frank Ravitch, a professor of law at Michigan State University, and author of “Freedom’s Edge: Religious Freedom, Sexual Freedom, and the Future of America.”

According to Ravitch, religious entities like churches reserve the right to discriminate based on sexual identity, but not all types of discrimination should be conflated.

“There’s illegal discrimination, or what you might call invidious discrimination is the legal term we use, which is really negative discrimination,” said Ravitch. “And then there’s discrimination that may result from a conscious religious choice where the intent is not to discriminate but rather to not become complicit in something that violates your religion.”

A church parking sign near Martin Luther Chapel.

When it comes to illegal discrimination, East Lansing prides itself on its civil rights ordinance that seeks to protect members of the LGBT community, said Shelli Neumann, staff liaison to East Lansing’s Human Relations Commission.

“We say we’re a diverse community and we’re a welcoming community,” said Neumann.

According to Vicki Rakowski, an East Lansing resident who has attended churches in the area, the openness of the community has a lot to do with the student population from nearby Michigan State University.

“I think you also have a population that tends to live near the campus that already has a more liberal, more open willingness to see all people as equal,” said Rakowski.

For Ken Slater, an elder and campus ministry team member at Greater Lansing Church of Christ, openness to people is an important launching point.

“We start by being welcoming and we certainly have moral positions, but we don’t try to impose those or superimpose those on anybody who comes along and meets with us,” said Slater. “People have to make their own decisions about the moral codes they’re going to follow.”

According to Slater, one of the benefits of being in a university town is the ability to ask questions and challenge existing standards.

But having a respectful dialogue isn’t always easy, said Scott Hayes, lead pastor at Element Church, a non-denominational congregation in East Lansing. According to Hayes, the level of emotion vested in conversations about religion and sexuality can make dialogue difficult.

“I’m not sure that either side has done a good job of making the distinctions that matter,” said Hayes. “It’s really like we’re having a lot of conversations about the branches of the tree but we miss getting to the root of what we’re really even talking about.”

According to Hayes, a critical part of the conversation is understanding how different people define truth. Does truth exist? If it does, what is it based on? Answers to these questions illuminate how people define reality.

“The roadmap for me as a spiritual leader is to kind of stand in the tension between people and ideas,” said Hayes. “Always loving people and then holding to certain creeds or ideas and there’s always going to be a tension in that.”

Slater said approaching these issues in a university town requires particular sensitivity.

According to Ravitch, dialogue is a way that people on all sides of these issues can find points of agreement and compromise.

“America would be a much less free place if we lost religious freedom,” said Ravitch. “It would also be a much less free place if we lost many of the LGBT rights that we now have. We lose part of what it means to be American if we lose either of these rights.”