You’ve heard the stories about the bakeries who won’t cater gay weddings, about conversion therapy and the pickets outside abortion clinics. To many Americans, LGBTQIA+ rights and religion are like oil and water, destined to disassociate by holy texts written in the age of Philistines and Persian kings. 

But what if we’ve gotten it all wrong? 

Since its founding in 2004, Santa Cruz interfaith organization Out in Our Faith has shepherded the common ground between God and the LGBTQIA+ community. Its two dozen member congregations range from Catholic ministries to Zen Buddhist meditation centers, that not only open their doors to people of all genders and sexualities, but embrace them. 

Santa Cruz Zen Center — Rachel Grad

Illustration by Thomas Sawano

Buddhism is guided by the Dharma. Compiled some 2,300 years ago in the foothills of the Himalaya mountains, the Dharma is a collection of sermons delivered by the Buddha, the mythical figure who, through years spent in spiritual contemplation, achieved enlightenment, or nirvana.

But over the centuries, as Buddhism travelled down the slopes of Tibet, through the plateaus of the Indian subcontinent and to the shores of China, it evolved to match each culture it encountered. Soto Zen, the brand of Buddhism practiced at the Santa Cruz Zen Center, descends from a lineage of practice imported from Japan, which in turn had been imported from China over a millennium ago. 

As Rachel Grad, a board member at the Santa Cruz Zen Center, explained, the focus of Soto Zen is on life, not life after death. Living by the Dharma is simply a path to good living, which is good enough for most Soto practitioners.

“Even as ‘waking up’ is central to the tradition, it’s about waking up to this life,” Grad said. “Intimacy with even the grit around us, rather than going to heaven or some other place or some other state of mind. […] Somewhere in there, in the very ordinariness of our everyday life, is awakening.”

And so, even though the Dharma was written centuries ago, Buddhism’s acceptance of LGBTQIA+ identity is a matter of principle.

“I’m not sure that gay pride is a Sōotoō issue,” Grad said. “But then somebody can say, ‘Well, it’s not a Soto issue, but it’s a humanitarian issue. Equal rights are a humanitarian issue.’ And humanitarian issues are definitely Soto issues.”

Temple Beth El — Rabbi Paula Marcus

Illustration by Thomas Sawano

Should there be a Jewish state? Is electricity fire? Should a decadent city with five innocents be blown up? 

To Paula Marcus, the senior rabbi at Temple Beth El in Aptos, it’s Judaism’s culture of debate, interpretation and reinterpretation that creates space for LGBTQIA+ acceptance, in spite of Hebrew Bible passages that seem to explicitly denounce male homosexuality. 

Marcus is fond of one passage in particular, in the book of Genesis, that lays out what she sees as an argument for universal human acceptance. As she explains, after God formed the world and breathed life into the first man Adam, God realized the creation of Adam alone was not good. 

“After each act of creation, God says, ‘It was good,’” Marcus said. “This is the first time it said ‘not good.’ It’s not good for a person to be alone.” 

General principles like these take precedence in Marcus’s brand of Judaism. Beth El is a reform synagogue — one of a large group of Jewish temples across the globe that emphasizes the ethical teachings of the Hebrew Bible, rather than its specificceremonial tenets. In the reform view, the principles of Judaism are constant, but what they entail, and what specific actions are considered right or wrong, should change over time. 

“Human society evolves, and the Torah is always open for interpretation,” Marcus said. “How many people are stoning their children? How many people are sacrificing animals? […] You can’t just pick and choose which things you want to observe literally or promote literally, and what things to not.”

Peace United Church of Christ — Reverend Damien Lake

Photo by Maria Cordova

If you went to Santa Cruz Pride this past June, you might have seen large groups of people wearing shirts emblazoned, “God Loves Her Queer Children.”

These were members of Peace United Church of Christ, which, since its establishment two decades ago, has made LGBTQIA+ acceptance among its top priorities. 

So where is the bridge between belief and activism? Reverend Damien Lake, the interim minister at Peace United, said that beyond simply admitting worshippers of all genders and sexualities, his congregation has a duty to broadcast its acceptance of LGBTQIA+ identity to the world.

“When we fall into the judgment seat, it prevents us from really seeing life the way that Jesus saw it,” Lake said. “We still see so many faith traditions that continue to condemn people in the LGBT community. […] We are not like the others, we are not here to judge you, we’re not here to call you out as a sinner. We’re here to love you and accept you.”