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Dear Mayor Trantalis and Pastor Pacienza: I welcome the spirit of your recent joint statement regarding the controversy arising from the proclamation honoring Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church and Westminster Academy on the occasion of the church’s 60th anniversary.

And I applaud the accomplishment of bringing diverse religious communities together for dialogue, common ground, and common good.

While much of what was included in your joint statement is admirable, it is the language of the fourth paragraph, describing the pain that Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church and Westminster Academy continue to inflict on LGBT people as a mere difference of opinion, that remains problematic:

“Differing opinions and values are ever-present in a diverse city like Fort Lauderdale. That’s part of our beauty. We also live in a country that values both a citizen’s freedom to believe and act according to their conscience and a citizen’s right to exercise their religious faith freely.”

These “differing opinions and values” include Pastor Pacienza using his position to urge Christian voters to be politically pro-active to help end marriage equality. Westminster Academy has a policy banning children living with gay parents. There is nothing “beautiful” about trying to destroy gay families, punishing a child with gay parents, or degrading the self-esteem of a young person because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. That is not “religious freedom.” That is child abuse.

Twentieth-century segregationists argued that the civil rights movement was a violation of “religious freedom” and the right to “act according to their conscience.” Jim Crow laws were championed by many white Southern Christians: “God had created the races separate and did not intend for them to mix; cursed by God, Black people were inferior to whites.” Is there anyone in 2021, other than a white supremacist, who would argue that requiring white employers to hire Black people, or a white baker to make a cake for an interracial couple, was a violation of sincerely held religious beliefs?

There is nothing new in claiming profound religious convictions to justify hatred and bigotry. It was rampant in the South throughout Jim Crow. “A citizen’s right to exercise their religious faith freely” is a cherished American value, but it does not bestow a right to destroy the lives of others. Religious freedom should end at the point where religious-based behavior harms other people, especially children. Claims of religious freedom to justify segregation have always been ugly. The same is true today for any entity that seeks to deny the equality or humanity of LGBT youth, adults or families.

- Marc Paige

Fort Lauderdale