Rainbow Rant: Religious right scores legal victory, but court of public opinion lost

If conversative Christians who oppose queer and trans rights are merely trying to follow their faith, our columnist challenges them to show a willingness to suffer for their beliefs

Joy Ellison
Shawnee State University says it "made an economic decision" to settle a professor's lawsuit.

An Ohio philosophy professor is $400,000 richer after refusing to use a trans student’s pronouns. 

Nick Meriwether said he refused to use “miss” and she/her pronouns for a trans woman in one of his classes at Shawnee State University because of his religious faith. After the school disciplined him for creating a “hostile environment,” Meriwether sued with the help of the Alliance Defending Freedom, an organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center calls a hate group. Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled in Meriwether’s favor. The gigantic settlement was announced last week.

Meriwether claimed that as an Evangelical Christian, he was simply trying to act in accordance with his religious beliefs. Believe it or not, I am profoundly sympathetic with that desire, but I question Meriwether’s motivations. If Meriwether and other Christians who share his interpretation of Jesus’ teachings are truly acting in accordance with the dictates of their consciences, then I challenge them to willing suffer for their beliefs instead of profiting off of them.

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It might surprise Meriwether that he and I have much in common. I am queer and transgender, but I am also a Christian. I was raised in a Quaker household in a tradition that places a profound emphasis on following one’s sense of God’s will no matter what, even when that means breaking the law.

One difference, however, between Meriwether’s approach and Quaker practice is that Quakers believe in willingly accepting the legal consequences of our actions. We see this as a matter of integrity, but also an opportunity to persuade other people that unjust laws must be changed. Our attempts to follow our beliefs have certainly been imperfect, but they have almost always been grounded in a willingness to suffer ourselves rather than cause pain to others. 

This kind of civil disobedience is a part of a profound American tradition, embodied by heroes like Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin, Bree Newsom, Bayard Rustin and Dolores Huerta. The willingness to accept suffering rather than inflict it is a key part of the civil disobedience strategy. Accepting the legal consequences of breaking an unjust law is, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. argued, indicative of the highest respect for law and the collective process of democratic governance.

Conservatives, however, have typically eschewed the strategy of civil disobedience. Instead, they have engaged in legal strategies designed to win the right to impose their viewpoints on other people. Perhaps they intuitively grasp an argument made by Mahatma Gandhi: Civil disobedience will only work when one’s cause is just. 

Make no mistake, homophobic and transphobic Christians like Meriwether are not truly fighting for the right to practice their faith. They’re instead demanding carte blanche to bully people who disagree with them. 

Nowhere in the Bible does it say that there is anything wrong with trans people. Instead, it is full of examples of acting with love toward people with whom we disagree. Jesus certainly never accepted money for being the Messiah. 

Conservative activists like Meriwether and the Alliance Defending Freedom may score legal victories, but they have already lost the battle for public opinion. That will be won by queer and trans people whose actions clearly show that our cause is just and that we are merely trying to live our lives.