Religion-based prejudice against LGBT people isn’t new. For millennia, anti-LGBT practices, teachings and beliefs of the Christian church have been at the root and the basis of anti-LGBT oppression.
This basis is obviously and abundantly clear, even in the present day. In every state and in cities across the country, each and every movement to adopt anti-LGBT marriage amendments or prevent the passage of LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination laws and ordinances all have one thing in common — proponents of discrimination come primarily and sometimes solely from the Christian church.
This clear connection is one of the reasons why I’ve devoted so much of my time and energy as a citizen and advocate to counter the anti-LGBT beliefs, teachings and practices of my fellow Christians. I take a hardline stance — a religious belief that places LGBT people in lower standing or status in any way whatsoever is dangerous to LGBT people. It doesn’t matter a single iota if you welcome gay people into your church if you at the same time place limits on their freedoms or ability to lead or worship or serve. At the end of the day, you are using religious faith to oppress. You can’t be welcoming and exclusionary at the same time. Case closed. The only time this hardline stance of mine bends is in the case of churches or religious leaders who, despite their own personal religious convictions, come out in full support of civil LGBT equality; I can respect personal religious conviction and the journey it takes to overcome one’s own prejudices, especially if that journey includes a staunch defense of civil liberties.
But I’ve been questioned about this hardline stance before — told I’m a radical or misguided, for example, or told that some acceptance is better than none.
The clear truth is that anti-LGBT church practices, teachings and beliefs have had a definitive, negative effect on the civil lives and liberties of LGBT people. If you need just one example of why a hardline stance like mine is needed, look no further than North Carolina’s sodomy or “crime against nature” law; in fact, the same case could be made for a great majority of U.S. states.
A millennia of church-inspired legal persecution
I’ve long known that North Carolina’s sodomy or “crime against nature” law was, in effect, a simple “copy and paste” of King Henry VIII’s buggery law, enacted in 1533. You can still see this legislative history reflected today in North Carolina’s General Statutes, with the crime against nature statute citing both King Henry VIII and the re-codification of her father’s law by Elizabeth I (it appears as “5 Eliz., c. 17; 25 Hen. VIII, c. 6,” appended at the end of the statute).
What wasn’t so clear to me until today, after some reading of this 1964 court case and this historical summary by George Painter, was that Henry VIII did some copying and pasting of his own. Before 1533, laws on sodomy didn’t exist in the English common law. The matter was handled exclusively by ecclesiastical courts. Henry VIII changed that, partly the result of the establishment of his own church. He took existing canon law and simply inserted it into the civil law.
It’s never been a stretch of the imagination to think that sodomy laws had a religious basis; I just didn’t know it was simply so blatant.
According to the 1964 case, whose opinion was written by U.S. District Court Judge J. Braxton Craven:
The statute is copied from the first English statute on the subject passed in the year 1533 during the reign of King Henry VIII. It was adopted in North Carolina in 1837 with only one difference. The words “vice of buggery” which appeared in the ancient English statute were omitted and instead there was substituted the delightful euphemism “crime against nature, not to be named among Christians.” It then read in its entirety:
“Any person who shall commit the abominable and detestable crime against nature, not to be named among Christians, with either mankind or beast, shall be adjudged guilty of a felony, and shall suffer death without the benefit of clergy.”
The original Tudor prohibition originally came into North Carolina first as a colony in 1715. (It might have come in earlier, but as Painter points out, “”not many of the laws enacted prior to 1715′ have been preserved. Whether a sodomy law was included during this time era is unknown.”) It’s not surprising that religiously-inspired law was accepted. Like its mother country, North Carolina’s colonial government had an official state church, the Church of England. But even after the establishment of a new nation on the American continent, North Carolina continued its church- and common law-inspired oppression. In 1778, this time as an independent state, North Carolina again adopted English common law, bringing with it the old prohibition against sodomy.
The law clearly had a religious motivation, given its history, but that was of no matter to North Carolina, even when such religiously- and church-inspired law itself came under scrutiny.
In 1843, according to Painter, “the North Carolina Supreme Court decided…that the common law of England, as adopted by North Carolina, included canon law, so that religious motivation for criminal law was allowable in the state.”
Not until just after the Civil War was the death penalty removed in favor of near-life sentences. By the 1960s, a person could be sentenced to up to 60 years for violating the law — the second-harshest penalty for a crime against nature in the country (Nevada was the worst, with imprisonment for life as their maximum sentence).
In 1968, the religious underpinning for the sodomy statute was again used to uphold it. In that case, State v. Stokes, the court cited scripture in its opinion, from Painter:
Leviticus 18:22 (King James) there appears this commandment: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” This commandment has become famous Biblical lore in the story of the destruction by fire and brimstone of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah where the practice was prevalent. Genesis 19:24-25. From this Biblical genesis to the present day, the crime of sodomy and the crime against nature have been condemned by American and English jurisdictions. The early common law writers called it peccatum illud horribile, inter christianos non nominandum (that abominable sin, not fit to be mentioned among Christians). [Emphasis the Court’s].
It would take until the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 — 470 years after Henry VIII inserted church laws prohibiting sodomy into the common law — before private, consensual acts among law-abiding adults were no longer criminalized.
That’s nearly 500 years — nearly half a millennium — for religiously-inspired, church-created anti-LGBT prejudice and oppression to finally work itself out of a single statute and area of law squarely directed at LGBT people, and for most of its existence with deadly consequences.
That’s why I find it so crucially important today to fight anti-LGBT religious pressure attempting to shape laws, policies and civic culture. The history is clear — the deleterious effect of religiously-inspired anti-LGBT oppression has played out for far too long, taking centuries to be unwound from the civil law. And that’s also why it’s doubly important for LGBT people and their allies to clearly call out those who stand against the LGBT community. Again, personal belief or conviction isn’t the issue. But it’s extremely problematic — so problematic that it’s time we start calling it out in media and in our communities — when personal anti-LGBT belief or conviction is used to harm another or used to help influence public law that applies to all.
Cover photo: Henry VIII with Charles V, the Holy Roman emperor, and Pope Leo X, circa 1520. Via Wikimedia. Public domain.