Bishop Benfield Speaks at Vigil


SEVERAL HUNDRED PEOPLE gathered outside the Governor’s Mansion in Little Rock last night at a vigil to oppose House Bill 1228, which allows people and companies to deny service to the state’s residents based on religious conviction and which has been described as a way to allow discrimination, especially against those who are gay, lesbian, and transgender.

The most recent Annual Convention of the Episcopal Church in Arkansas, held in February, passed “A Resolution on the Rights and Dignity of Every Human Being,” opposing the bill. (Read the resolution.)

Our own Bishop Benfield was at the vigil, along with several Episcopal clergy and numerous area parishioners. Bishop Benfield was one of several local religious leaders who spoke out against the bill. Here is what he said:

As an Episcopalian who believes in the equality of all humans in the eyes of God, I am troubled by a state legislature that has apparently decided that it is going to return to the old days of Arkansas discrimination. House Bill 1228 gives cover for discrimination against so many groups, including gay, lesbian, and transgender people, if that discrimination is based on religious conviction. Among the many things troubling about this legislation is that it so patently wraps the desire to discriminate in the cloth of freedom of religion. I am hurt that the faith—and the attendant hope and love and equality for all people in the eyes of God—that I share with so many people is being co-opted for political gain. I do not approve.

In the end this bill is harmful to religion and religious values in this state. If I were not a Christian already and read only what this bill states and allows, I would not want to be a part of a faith that seems to be focused on exclusion and oppression. This legislation paints a false picture of religion. I must tell the governor and legislators that authentic communities of faith neither need nor want such false support. My experience has been that people of genuine faith do not discriminate and thus have no need to have discrimination protected. Before the final vote is taken in the State House, the governor needs to tell his friends there that this bill is bad for religion. If this legislation makes it to the governor’s desk, and if he wants religion to be more influential in Arkansas’s future, he needs to veto the bill.

This is an Orval Faubus moment for our governor. We in Arkansas have lived for so long with the consequences of using religion for racial discrimination in the 1950s, when some people told our citizens that God’s will was for segregation. I thought we had learned our lesson. Apparently, we have not. Mature leaders will not repeat the mistakes of the past, and will admit that it is wrong to discriminate. Mature leaders will seek to end discrimination, and indeed will call it evil to discriminate under the cover of religious freedom. I remain hopeful than we can be a better people than recent events have shown us.

Let us pray:

Look with pity, O heavenly Father, upon the people in this land who live with injustice as their constant companion. Have mercy upon us. Help us to eliminate our cruelty to these our neighbors. Strengthen those who spend their lives establishing equal protection of the law and equal opportunities for all. And grant that every one of us may enjoy a fair portion of the riches of this land. For your love’s sake we pray. Amen.