Leiden Law Blog

Sergius and Bacchus: religion and same-sex relations

Sergius and Bacchus: religion and same-sex relations

Sergius and Bacchus were two Roman soldiers and are patron saints in the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox Church. They were close friends and there are suggestions their relationship was a romantic one. Scholars believe that they may have been united in the rite of adelphopoiesis, a kind of early Christian same-sex marriage. Because of this supposed romantic relationship, they are popularly venerated in the gay (Christian) community. So there seems to be harmony between religion and a same-sex relationship. The opposite seems true, as you will find out in this blog. I will use the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), signed by Indiana Governor Mike Pence in April 2015, as an example. This law prohibits state or local governments from burdening the ability to exercise religion.

So, what’s the problem with this law?

While the bill doesn’t mention sexual preferences, many fear it could be used as an excuse to discriminate. Business owners could, for example, deny services to gays and lesbians for religious reasons. The governor denies this: “this bill is not about discrimination, and if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way in Indiana, I would have vetoed it”. The contrary seems true. The bill specifically states that legal protection is offered to anyone who feels their religion has been burdened, “regardless of whether the state or any other governmental entity is a party to the proceeding”. Because of this exception – the exception that the government doesn’t have to be involved – the Indiana law is of significant concern to the LGBT community and doesn’t resemble the federal RFRA. In Indiana it is prohibited to discriminate against someone because of, for example, their race, their religion and their gender. Sexual orientation, however, is not protected against discrimination by law and the state of Indiana therefore has no law protecting LGBTs from discrimination. The Onion dedicated an article to the RFRA, titled “Indiana Governor Insists New Law Has Nothing To Do With Thing It Explicitly Intended To Do”.

Legislative intention

In 2012 Pizer, Sears, Mallory & Hunter already stated that “the current system is incomplete, confusing, and inadequate” and “that discrimination is persistent, widespread, and harmful”. The harm of discrimination is confirmed by research conducted by Almeida, Johnson, Corliss, Molnar & Azrael (2009), who studied LGBT youth and adolescents. Their research shows that perceived discrimination accounted for increased symptoms of depression, and accounted for a higher risk of self-harm and suicides. It is therefore no surprise that Pizer et al. conclude that “ending all forms of unequal treatment based on sexual orientation or gender identity is warranted, feasible and beneficial”. The role lobbyists played in influencing the legislator is more surprising. The American Family Association of Indiana played a key role in the drafting and publicly named this bill as a means for LGBT discrimination, while Advance America praised the bill and proudly explained this law makes sure that Christians will not be punished for refusing services to homosexuals. The claim that the legislation doesn’t have anything to do with discrimination is thus contradicted. If the Indiana government really doesn’t want to allow discrimination, as they claim, the solution is quite simple. They could amend their anti-discrimination law to include sexual orientation. Governor Pence however said: “I will not push for that. That’s (…) not been an objective of the people of the state of Indiana. And it doesn’t have anything to do with this law”.

Current situation

We’ve seen the arguments of various scholars relating to discrimination and same-sex relationships and throughout history many ways in which a government can respond to (the combination of) these phenomena have been revealed. On  26 June 2015, a ruling by the United States Supreme Court stated that state-level bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional. This might be a first step towards broader recognition within the legal framework, but the rights of the LGBT community in the US are still being fiercely debated.

This blog has aimed at illustrating the impact any law can have on discrimination; it can be prevented by laws, but – as shown – it can also be enabled by them. Though denied by the Roman Catholic Church, the connection of Sergius and Bacchus to the gay community caused the church to strip them from its liturgical calendar in 1969. Luckily there are many examples of harmony between religion and LGBTs, but we can still see tension between religion and sexual orientation in countries like Moldova and Russia, but also in the Netherlands. We can state that discrimination is far from dead. While in modern day society all are equal in principle, discrimination is one of the biggest everyday problems. In our society all are equal, but – as George Orwell stated in Animal Farm – some seem to be more equal than others.

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