Tell people of faith in the Myrtle Beach area the government might prevent them from reminding gay people how “sinful” their lifestyle is or force businesses to include contraceptive coverage in employer-based health insurance policies, there would be outrage and claims of tyranny and religious persecution.
Tell them the government will stand in their way of helping the needy in the way they believe their faith demands, there would be a collective yawn.
At least that’s been the reality the past few years.
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While residents of Myrtle Beach have passionately engaged in debates about the Affordable Care Act and religion and whether a pizza owner in Indiana has a right to decline catering a same-sex wedding, discussing the proper line between law and religion in this area has been largely muted — even though it has been playing out in Myrtle Beach courts and on Myrtle Beach streets.
A small group of full- and part-time residents has been trying to help homeless people. They have not been asking for government help or money. They’ve simply wanted to provide the needy food and a shelter on days the weather becomes unbearable.
They believe the power of face-to-face fellowship can transform people who face a variety of challenges, even if takes a long time and can’t be displayed on a spreadsheet about how much it saves taxpayers.
And at every turn, they’ve felt stymied by the law. They’ve legally challenged Myrtle Beach and lost.
The city has its own philosophy, one largely focused on providing short-term assistance to those in need while building educational and work skills that can lead to independence. It supports outfits such as Street Reach shelter, which can boast that more than 300 of the people it helped last year moved into permanent housing, its umbrella organization saved $350,000 during its first year of existence, and that a growing number of Street Reach residents are benefiting from a work program that has led to full-time work.
The city and residents disagreeing on how best to solve a complex issue is nothing new. Each of the opposing views has its merits. That’s not the real issue.
Two things stand out.
One, it’s curious how one-sided the debate about religious freedom has been. There have been religously-inspired laws based upon the “teach a man to fish” principle forcing poor people to take random drug tests and dictating what they can buy with food stamps.
Put a baby in a trash bin out of a deep sense of desperation, you’re a criminal. Allow a child to die by withholding life-saving medical care because of your religion, you’re a God-honoring soul.
It’s not odd that people of faith get animated when their right to discriminate or put upon the poor or endanger children has been challenged but don’t show the same level of passion when laws get in the way of their attempts to help the needy?
And, two, it’s notable that the broader Myrtle Beach faith community has been largely silent on this particular conflict. We are firmly entrenched in the Bible Belt, but there has been no real grappling with where the proper dividing line between faith and law should be.
In this case, a group inspired by Jesus’ admonishment to feed and clothe and shelter “the least of these” wanted to use small churches to provide temporary, emergency shelter from the storm for a few dozen people. (Their efforts to provide food have also been curtailed because of the law.)
The need for such shelter is clear. Street Reach and the city can’t handle all of the area’s homeless on any given night even if they wanted to.
But state and local law are clear about the requirements a structure must meet to qualify as a residence, even a temporary, overnight one.
Not only that, the impact on particular neighborhoods must be taken into account.
Helping the homeless might be a worthy cause in theory, but practical concerns include the increased presence of people with profound problems in residential areas and public parks.
Is that fair to people who live near the churches?
Is it fair to force the homeless to brave the elements even when people are willing to use houses of worship to protect them from the storm?
What to do?
More specifically, if you passionately believe the law should not dictate to people of faith when it comes to same-sex marriage, why aren’t you just as passionate about their right to help the poor?