World Religions and the Struggle for Equality

By Knox, Harry; Groves, Sharon | Conscience, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

World Religions and the Struggle for Equality

Knox, Harry, Groves, Sharon, Conscience

MUCH HAS BEEN WRITTEN about the Vatican's "Instruction" refusing to allow openly gay men enter Catholic seminaries. The first press leaks about the document coincided with the formation of a new effort by the Religion and Faith Program at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation in the summer of 2005 that had a twofold mission: (1) to equip religious leaders and lay people alike to speak out about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality from a faith perspective and (2) to work with people of faith to change the conversation about LGBT equality from within their faith communities. Until now, the radical right has convinced many Americans that religion is antagonistic to the interests, and indeed to the very humanity, of LGBT people. It is our grounding belief, however, that all religions contain within them a profound reverence for the source of love and compassion in our lives and that this source is inclusive of all people no matter their race, gender, economic means, physical ability or sexual orientation. As we hope you will glean from this overview of non-Catholic traditions, the scriptural underpinning of most world religions is more inclusive than is often depicted.


Islam is the second largest and the fastest growing religion in the world. As with all other major religions, its stance on lesbian and gay people is theologically complex. Currently, the more conservative elements in Islam hold sway. Consequently, almost all official organs of Islam around the world condemn homosexuality while differing mostly on degrees of punishment for lesbian and gay people. The Hanfite school that predominates in south and eastern Asia, for instance, maintains that same-gender sex does not merit physical punishment, while the Hanbalites who predominate in the Arab world believe that homosexual activity must be punished severely.

Theological Underpinnings

The basis for Islam's condemnation of LGBT people is taken from a few verses in the Qu'ran, most of which describe the story of Lot, who lived in the biblical city of Sodom, and four Hadiths, sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, that do not meet historical accuracy nor theological scrutiny.

The Qu'ran's telling of the story of Lot emphasizes an injunction against heterosexual males using homosexual rape as a form of torture and punishment. It does not speak to lesbian practices. Some progressive Muslim scholars, particularly in the West, argue that the Qu'ran does not address loving relationships between gay and lesbian people, but instead only discusses homosexual activity within a loveless and usually violent context. They have also questioned the authenticity of the Hadith literature relating to the killing of homosexuals, unconvinced they are the words and practices of Prophet Muhammad.

Progressive Islam in the United States

Al-Fatiha Foundation, begun in 1997, is dedicated to advocating for LGBT people. Their mission is to "enlighten the Muslim and outside world that Islam is a religion of tolerance and not hate, and that Allah loves His creations, no matter what their sexual orientations might be." Very recently, the Progressive Muslim Union of North America organized, among other things, "to endorse the human rights and liberties of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-sexual individuals [and] ... reject the authoritarian, racist, sexist and homophobic interpretations of our faith as antithetical to the principles of justice and compassion."


Buddhism consists of many schools, sects and subsects amongst which there is no consensus about same-gender relationships. The Buddha left no teachings on homosexual orientation and did not place great value on procreation. Further, Buddhist sacred texts are filled with loving (albeit mostly non-sexual) relationships between men. Nonetheless, larger cultural attitudes about homosexuality and the interpretation of the Buddhist precept "to abstain from sexual misconduct," have fostered hostility against LGBT people in some communities. …

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