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Wave of anti-transgender bills in Republican-led states divides US faith leaders

As Republican-governed states across the nation advance myriad bills targeting transgender young people, America’s faith leaders are starkly divided in their assessment. Some view the legislation as reflecting God’s will; others voice outrage that Christianity is being invoked to justify laws they view as cruel and hateful.

In one camp are many legislators who have cited their conservative religious beliefs while promoting these bills, as well as leaders of America’s two largest denominations — the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention.

U.S. Catholic bishops have rejected the concept of gender transition; they issued guidelines in March to stop Catholic hospitals from assisting in such transitions. The SBC has been on record since 2014 asserting that gender transition is “contrary to God’s design.”

In an online article, the Rev. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, depicted gender transition as “a blatant attempt to undermine the very order of creation.”

“The Bible reveals that any attempt to subvert creation ends in disaster, not in human liberation,” he wrote.

Faith leaders who support transgender rights bristle at the use of religious rhetoric to marginalize trans people.

“As a Christian leader, it’s horrifying to me that Christianity and the Bible are being used by the religious right to bludgeon people through these many bills,” said Serene Jones, the president of Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

“To use religious language like that is an abomination,” she said. “They are threatening the lives and well-being of so many people around the U.S. and the world.”

Jones said it was wrong to cite the Bible in rejecting transgender identity.

“It wasn’t something that the Bible even thought about,” she said. “The larger message there is a message of love and inclusion.”

By the latest count, at least 20 states have imposed bans or limits on transgender athletes’ sports participation at the K-12 or collegiate level. And at least 18 states have adopted laws or policies — including some blocked by courts — barring gender-affirming medical care, such as puberty blockers, hormone therapy and surgery for minors.

In Oklahoma, state Sen. David Bullard cited a biblical passage in introducing what he calls the Millstone Act — a bill that would make it a felony for doctors to provide gender transition procedures to anyone under the age of 26. Bullard, who has served as a deacon at his Baptist church, said the act’s name alludes to a passage in the Book of Matthew suggesting that anyone causing a child to sin should be drowned in the sea with a millstone hung around their neck.

In the Texas legislature, one of the leading backers of anti-trans legislation is an ordained minister — Rep. Steve Toth. One bill he introduced also proposes making it a felony to provide gender-affirming care for minors.

Bills in other states have sought to restrict transgender people’s use of public restrooms and limit their ability to be called by the pronouns that reflect their gender identity.

In recent months, several of the Southern Baptists’ state affiliates have adopted resolutions embracing the overall thrust of the anti-trans bills.

A resolution approved by the Tennessee Baptist Convention depicted gender dysphoria as a "sexual perversion.”

The South Carolina Baptist Convention urged its followers “to resist speaking falsely and giving credence to the philosophies of the LGBTQ+ movement by adopting preferred pronouns that do not refer to a person’s created sex and biological makeup.” And the Southern Baptists of Texas cited a verse from Genesis in rejecting “any type of false doctrine or deceptive application related to gender identity and sexuality.”

In various communities across the U.S. — including Knoxville, Tennessee, and Madison, Wisconsin — interfaith groups of moderate and liberal religious leaders have held events to show support for transgender people and denounce the wave of anti-trans legislation.

In Pasadena, California, one such event took place on March 31, bringing together Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders for a news conference at All Saints Church, home to an Episcopal congregation that embraces LGBTQ inclusion.

Even though California’s Democratic-controlled legislature would not approve any anti-trans measures, an organizer of the event said it was important to speak out in support of trans people in states enacting such bills.

“If our voices can be heard by some trans kid in Kentucky, realizing there are faith leaders who’ve got their back, they might hang on a little bit longer,” said the Rev. Pat Langlois, senior pastor of Metropolitan Community Church United Church of Christ in the Valley.

“These bills are the most vitriolic and cruel legislation I’ve seen,” she said. “I have a non-binary teenager, so I take this really personally, not just as a person of faith and as a lesbian, but as a mom.”

Langlois, whose LGBTQ activism spans several decades, described the current situation as “probably the scariest time” because of the array of hostile bills.

Her worries were compounded on May 4, when the rector of All Saints, Mike Kinman, told his congregation that the church had received two threats — that a bomb would be detonated during Sunday worship, and that someone would come to a service with a gun to kill the pastor.

In response, Kinman said the church would be deploying security guards, requesting that police conduct a sweep of church property before the services and closing the church balcony to the public.

The leader of one of the largest mainline Protestant denominations, the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has condemned the anti-trans bills as an attack on trans people’s humanity.

“While members of our church hold various convictions regarding gender, the teaching of our church supports legislation and policies to protect every person’s human dignity and civil rights,” Eaton said in a recent statement. “Our church teaches that we affirm transgender and nonbinary siblings as God’s children.”

As for U.S. Catholics, there are diverse views among church personnel.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has told Catholic hospitals they must not perform “interventions, whether surgical or chemical, that aim to transform the sexual characteristics of a human body into those of the opposite sex.”

Christine Zuba, a transgender woman who lives in New Jersey, was disappointed that transgender people weren't even mentioned in the USCCB's 14-page document, except in a footnote.

“All we ask is listen to us,” she said. “Open your hearts and try to understand.”

Yet some parish priests — including Zuba's pastor — have welcomed transgender people into their congregations, and honored their decisions to transition. In March, several thousand Catholic nuns, representing orders across the U.S., signed a statement urging people to oppose anti-transgender legislation in their states.

“As members of the body of Christ, we cannot be whole without the full inclusion of transgender, nonbinary, and gender-expansive individuals,” the statement said.

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.