Two hundred faith leaders can't be wrong. In addition to being the campaign's tagline, that's the number of religious representatives that Michigan's LGBTQ+-affirming, faith-based coalition Inclusive Justice has brought together to sign a letter in support of the Equality Act. Though the bill has passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, it still must make its way through the Senate to be adopted.
If passed, the Act would create federal protections that include sexual orientation and gender identity for all U.S. citizens, ensuring that all LGBTQ+ people wouldn't have to rely on an inconsistent patchwork of regional laws to have legal recourse in cases of discrimination. This effort has been spearheaded by The Rev. Dr. Roland Stringfellow who serves not only as the pastor for LGBTQ+-inclusive Christian church MCC Detroit but as Inclusive Justice's chair.
"Religious support of nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people demonstrates that religious and civil liberties are not contradictory forces," Stringfellow said. "The lack of protections causes harm to our LGBTQ neighbors. Legislators must have the moral imperative to protect and uphold the sacred dignity and worth of all Michiganders."
Over a Year in the Making
While this stand for LGBTQ+ equality may seem like a recent development, Stringfellow said that it's the result of more than a year of campaigning that began with the help of The National LGBTQ Task Force. As part of Stringfellow's work with Inclusive Justice, he is funded by a California grant to do political advocacy work to convince Republicans and on-the-fence Democrats of the benefits of the Equality Act. The Task Force is part of a coalition that works to aid in those efforts.
"I dusted off an old presentation that I used to engage in called Turning a Sermon Into a Soundbite. What that was back then was really helping clergy with how to formulate press releases and the difference between a press release and a media advisory of that nature — that was all around the Prop 8 marriage equality campaign. So [I focused on] how people can do that and also how they can speak to their representatives [about the Equality Act today]," he said. "It's a like a twofer."
It wasn't long into this effort that Stringfellow met Barbara Satin — the new director of faith outreach for the Task Force — and Reese Rathjen-Amyx — also of the Task Force — who were both excited to aid Stringfellow in his efforts.
It was then that the former presentation turned into a nationally shared workshop that was even featured at the Task Force's annual Creating Change conference. While there, the presentation was directed largely toward the public and religious leaders, but Stringfellow began to conceive of using the presentation's tactics to more directly target political leaders unsure of the Equality Act's benefits.
"At that time, [former U.S. Rep.] Justin Amash and Fred Upton, who were representatives in the House, were my targets. They were known more to be moderate Republicans and that having a conversation with them very well could turn the tide," Stringfellow said. "That's why I was working in the West side of the state and then we had a clergy press conference in Grand Rapids to launch this."
Earning Political Clout
It was with help of fellow activists that Stringfellow was able to create a smaller version of today's 200-strong faith leader coalition and earn a meeting with both Reps. on two separate occasions in Michigan and in Washington, D.C.
"I use a lot of the lessons from Turning a Sermon Into a Soundbite with Amash, which was that these clergy [who were in the meeting with me] would tell very moving, compelling stories of discrimination against people or that had happened to themselves or their child," he said. "And so, as we did this, Amash, who is a man of faith, sat and listened and he used his Libertarian talking points back at us. One of the things we kept saying to him, literally repeating was, 'We want you to vote your conscience. As a person of faith, it is important for you to vote your conscience.'"
While Stringfellow said he can't prove that there's any connection, he was surprised to see that merely a month later, Amash announced that he was leaving the Republican party, citing his conscience as his motivating factor. He did so again when Republican Sen. Mitt Romney supported the impeachment of former President Donald Trump.
Thank you, @SenatorRomney, for upholding your oath to support and defend the Constitution. You will never regret putting your faith in God and doing right according to the law and your conscience.
— Justin Amash (@justinamash) February 5, 2020
"We like to take credit, but we don't have any hard proof. But the thing was, we were able to contact him and start a relationship with him and from there we met him in Washington, D.C., with another pastor here from Michigan and I just thanked him," Stringfellow said. "What happened then was an op-ed talking of support of transgender people in the military. We were thrilled with that. I thanked him for that."
While he was glad to see that his meeting with Amash may have served to change his mind, Stringfellow said that the reaction wasn't as "dramatic" with Upton. Still, he was glad to get the opportunity to speak his piece for the passage of the Equality Act. Later, he was disappointed by Upton's homophobic campaign against openly gay opponent Jon Hoadley in 2020, but Stringfellow still chose to reach out after Upton was reelected in 2021 to persuade him to consider his LGBTQ+ constituents.
"Because we want him to do right by us and advocate for our community," Stringfellow said. "This is the type of work that we are engaged with and are hoping that we can have this type of interaction with our representatives, no matter what side of the aisle they are on. We want you to know that we, as leaders within your communities, it's important."
Looking back on efforts that began in 2019 targetting only a corner of the state, Stringfellow is pleased at the immense support his campaign for passage of the Equality Act has gotten.
"It was started in West Michigan more than a year ago now, and ‚Ä¶ now what was about 50 names is about 200 names. And we literally are from Detroit to Traverse City to Midland to Muskegon," he said. "It's all over."
Stringfellow is quick to point out that there is plenty of diversity among the race, ethnicity and religion of each of the more than 200 campaign signees. He pointed out that The Rt. Rev. Dr. Bishop Bonnie A. Perry as an especially exciting faith leader to have on the list. Not only does she have prominent standing in Michigan's religious community because she is serving as Episcopal Church's 11th bishop diocesan, Perry identifies as a lesbian and she has used her platform to be vocally supportive of LGBTQ+ rights expansion. Notably, she wrote an op-ed in support of the Act that was picked up by The Hill.
"It's like the Bible for many [White House] staffers, so the fact that it got placed there, many people ask, 'Well, what did The Hill say?' And the fact that we were able to land that from Michigan and from one of our prominent faith leaders says a lot," he said.
And while Stringfellow is excited at the statewide and national support he's gotten in his efforts to aid in the passage of the Equality Act, he's not stopping anytime soon. In a press release, Perry echoed his thoughts.
"‚Ä¶ This letter is a commitment from all of us to keep pushing forward for LGBTQ freedom and dignity, and change is possible in 2021," she said.
Learn more about Inclusive Justice online at inclusivejustice.org/home. On Monday, March 8, at 3 p.m. religious leaders and the media can attend a training on speaking and campaigning for the Equality Act and, on a local level, to amend the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. Registration can be found here. For those who cannot make the meeting, the recording will be available afterward.