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As a West Virginia faith leader, I hope our U.S. senators, Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito, will come together to find common ground ensuring fairness and equality for all Americans. For decades, Congress has shirked its responsibility to protect LGBTQ Americans — but with both parties now offering proposals to add nondiscrimination protections to the law, 2021 could be different. I look to senators Manchin and Capito to help hammer out the details of this crucial legislation.

The congregation I serve as pastor, First Presbyterian Church of Morgantown, has a long history as an open and affirming church for our LGBTQ members. Two years ago, we formally identified as a More Light Congregation, a movement among Presbyterians to explicitly invite LGBTQ participation in a faith community’s life.

Given our history and the membership of LGBTQ folks on our Session governing body, identifying as More Light was a natural step, one imbued with great significance. We believe a faith community is incomplete without LGBTQ people, who have unique gifts and perspectives to offer. Jesus’ teaching that everyone is a child of God compels us to support the LGBTQ community. We do so not despite our faith, but because of it.

Embracing More Light principles is emblematic of our commitment to actively advocate for LGBTQ people in the public square. Our society is not everything it can be if some are denied basic human rights. Guaranteeing equal rights and respect for everyone’s dignity is a critical building block of a healthy society.

My appreciation for the unique challenges facing LGBTQ people was deepened nearly a decade ago when I learned about the work of The Trevor Project, a nationwide crisis intervention and suicide prevention group serving LGBTQ youth. I heard horrific stories from young people forced into faith-based conversion therapy, where in some cases they were shown sexually suggestive images of individuals of their own gender while being physically shocked. Other youth, bombarded with messages about the sinfulness of their identity, faced less extreme but no less damaging pressures. Instilling self-loathing in vulnerable youth creates a profound spiritual crisis regarding a foundational part of their identity.

Four years ago, Morgantown enacted an inclusive nondiscrimination law and is a hospitable community for LGBTQ folks. Still, I’ve heard stories from congregants having lost jobs or being denied housing because of their identity, including one fired when they began transitioning. For LGBTQ youth in outlying areas whose parents throw them out of their home, Morgantown is the only place they can find adequate social services, and we meet some of them at our free pancake breakfasts. West Virginia still offers no statewide nondiscrimination protections, nor does it protect school students from bullying and harassment.

What I’ve witnessed in West Virginia is not unique. I’ve come to learn that discrimination has profoundly damaging consequences for LGBTQ Americans nationwide. One in three, according to a 2020 survey, experienced discrimination — in public spaces, on the job, in schools, and in their own neighborhoods — in just the previous year.

That number rises to 60% among transgender people, who experience exceptionally high levels of unemployment, poverty, and homelessness. They are also stalked by violence, with a record 44 hate-motivated murders nationwide last year.

Black and Latino LGBTQ folks face greater poverty rates than communities of color generally. Less than half the states protect the community’s youth from bullying in school. Elders must often re-closet themselves, with nearly half of same-sex couples reporting discrimination in seeking senior housing.

Thankfully, there is now hope Congress will act. For the first time, both Democrats and Republicans have put forward measures that add LGBTQ protections to our nation’s civil rights laws. The major disagreement between the two parties involves balancing the urgent need to protect LGBTQ people with the religious freedoms we cherish as Americans.

Finding a path to getting that job done is what legislators do when committed to solving problems. Senators Manchin and Capito can look to the 21 states — including our neighbor Virginia —with laws that prohibit anti-LGBTQ discrimination without compromising religious freedoms.

The Rev. Zac Morton is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Morgantown.

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