“Discrimination” is one of today’s buzzwords, and 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 Scouts’ ban on homosexual Scout leaders has gained the most publicity of late. But a public feud between one of America’s largest para-church ministries and one of its largest banks, along with an intra-denominational dispute over same-sex couples at a Chicago-area 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 para-church evangelical ministries, with 1,300 employees and an annual budget of $112 million. Any large banking firm would presumably covet managing the ministry’s charitable gift annuity.
But not the Pittsburgh-based Mellon Bank, which rebuffed Focus’s 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 curricula that advocate acceptance of homosexual practice.
Not one to shy away from controversy, Dobson took to the airwaves against the banking giant, urging his three to four million radio listeners to phone Mellon Bank to complain about its discrimination against a Christian ministry because of its beliefs.
Apparently inundated with phone calls, Mellon threatened legal action against Focus if the campaign did not end. But as the complaints 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 denied ever making an issue of Mellon’s employment practices.
Focus was looking for a bank with financial prowess, not necessarily conservative views. In fact. Focus said it would take its business to the San Francisco based Wells Fargo Company, which must comply with that city’s ordinance against discrimination based on sexual orientation.
In another situation involving less corporate firepower but no less emotion, a United Methodist camp near Chicago is battling its own denominational officials over its refusal to rent a cabin to a same-sex couple.
The Historic Methodist Campground at Des Plaines, Illinois, dates back to the great revivals of the pre-Civil War Midwest. Less prone to fiery revivalism now, the camp plays host mostly to older Methodists looking for a quiet retreat.
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 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, 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. Expecting a hostile crowd, 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 generated publicity throughout the 8.4 million member United Methodist denomination. “This is unholy ground,” pronounced an infuriated Chicago-area pastor.
He and others in the regional church asked Cook County’s Commission on Human Rights to intervene. The county ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation is supposed to exempt religious organizations. But the commission has asked a judge to compel the church camp to accept the same-sex couple.
A camp spokeswoman 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.
The Historic Methodist Campground and Focus on the Family have fallen victim to misbegotten rules regarding non-discrimination based on “sexual orientation.” Such regulations sound innocuous. But they have increasingly become instruments for imposing an alien social orthodoxy on private groups that simply want to establish ethical standards for their own communities. And these laws are based on a popular but irrational view that diverse sexual behaviors can be equated with morally neutral traits such as race or sex.