If Steve Sabin were a fireman in this town, the city couldn't fire him just because he is gay. If Steve Sabin were a newspaper reporter in this town, The Tribune couldn't fire him just because he is gay. If Steve Sabin were a teacher in this town, the school system couldn't fire him just because he is gay.
But Steve Sabin is a minister in this town, and the Lutheran church has defrocked him just because he is gay.
Can it do that?
We hope not. And we think not.
There are no nationwide laws to protect homosexuals against discrimination, and Iowa is not one of the 12 states that have statutes that protect gays. But Ames is one of two Iowa towns -- the other, of course, is Iowa City -- with municipal codes that protect homosexuals.
The Ames code is clear: "It shall be unfair or discriminatory practice for any person to refuse to hire, accept, register, classify or refer for employment, to discharge any employee, or to otherwise discriminate in employment against any applicant for employment or any employee because of the age, race, creed, color, sex, national origin, religion, disability or sexual orientation of such applicant or employee, unless based upon the nature of the occupation."
There is an exception for religious ocupations. But the exception is only when the qualification is "for a bona fide religious purpose."
Is it a "bona fide religious purpose" that a minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America not be a practicing homosexual?
"The reality is that the church needs to be able to have standards for pastors," Philip Hougen, the bishop for the Southeastern Iowa Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran church, told Alice Lukens of the Tribune last week. But standards that break the law?
The church itself does not condemn homosexuality, just practicing homosexuality among its ministers, so it's hard to see where defrocking a homosexual minister is a bona fide religious purpose of the Lutheran church. The committee that voted to remove Sabin from the church's roster of clergy wrote that it "acknowledges and admires the gifts for ministry that Pastor Sabin has brought to the Lord of Life congregation" in Ames. It added, though, that that doesn't "outweigh or excuse" the fact that Sabin is in violation of the policy of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.
It might not outweigh or excuse it in the minds of the church, but it could outweigh or excuse it in the eyes of the law.
If a panel that takes a minister off a religion's rolls concedes the minister has done a good job, does it have a bona fide religious purpose in discriminating against him for his homosexuality? That would be tough to prove under the Ames statute. The law makes it clear that the Lutheran church wouldn't have to ordain a Methodist -- gay or straight, man or woman, black or white. The law makes it clear that a Catholic school can insist that its teachers be Catholics (but not necessarily straight Catholics), that a Presbyterian church can insist that its choir director be Presbyterian (but not necessarilyi a straight Presbyterian).
But it isn't at all clear that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America can take Steve Sabin off its rolls just because he is gay.
And why should it be able to? Are homosexuals somehow a threat to Lutherans? (Actually, the real minority Sabin belongs to is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. With 5,250,000 members, it is by far the largest of the 10 to 15 branches of Lutheranism in America -- but its members are tiny compared to the number of homosexuals in America, a number conservatively put at 15 million by researchers.) Why should homosexual teachers be protected against discrimination but not homosexual ministers? Why should homosexual police be protected but not homosexual ministers? Why should homosexual reporters be protected but not homosexual ministers?
There is no reason.
Steve Sabin loves his work, loves his God, loves his church, loves his parish -- and loves another man.
We should praise him, or we should ignore him.
But we shouldn't fire him.