On Religious Liberty and LGBT Rights, Catholics Must Pursue Third Way

Gov. Mike Pence signing Indiana’s “right to discriminate” law, surrounded by religious leaders

Legislative developments in Indiana and other states, as well as the District of Columbia, are seemingly pitting LGBT rights against religious liberty. This binary is, however, false and Catholics must pursue a third way which upholds justice for all people while respecting real religious liberty.

First, a bit of context. Last week, Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed a law which could legalize anti-gay discrimination by prohibiting “state and local laws that ‘substantially burden’ the ability of people, businesses and associations to follow their religious beliefs,”reports Crux. This was one of more than a dozen similar bills introduced in state legislatures this year, and many LGBT advocates consider it among the most extreme, triggering calls for a boycott of the state from business leaders and celebrities. Ongoing updates about such bills are available at Crux.

Writing at the blog Catholic Moral Theology, Thomas Bushlack highlights that Indiana’s law and those like it are undergirded by “bad jurisprudence and bad theology.” Bushlack states:

“This bill strikes me as one of the most ironic and perverse applications of religious liberty imaginable: a fundamental principle of the United States’ Bill of Rights, enshrined in the First Amendment non-establishment clause, is now being used to sanction discrimination.  The ironies of history and politics know no bounds.”

Critiquing a photo from Pence’s signing ceremony, where Catholic religious are prominently displayed, Bushlack adds:

“Is this really the way in which religious leaders, including members of the Catholic Church such as those represented in this photo, want to stand up in defense of religious liberty?  Do we want to use the fundamental tenet of American democracy as an excuse to discriminate against our own citizens, against our own brothers and sisters in Christ?  I submit that this is not the face of religious liberty that we need to defend in America today.”

It is tragic that Catholics, including church leaders, are among those working so actively to enshrine a right to discriminate against LGBT people into law. More than 40 church workers have lost their jobs over LGBT issues since 2008 and, in almost every case, church officials appealed to religious identities and ministerial exemptions in legally justifying their actions. The immorality of expelling these workers, however, is quite clear.

As LGBT rights progress in the United States, it is time for Catholics, regardless of their views on homosexuality or gender, to pursue a third way which protects the rights of all people and respects religious liberty, properly understood. Instead of pursuing legalized discrimination and endless litigation, perhaps an example from Utah illustrates how the Catholic Church might proceed.

Senate Bill 296 became law earlier this month, banning discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in housing and employment while concurrently strengthening religious liberty. What is remarkable is that both pro- and anti-LGBT organizations have welcomed the law,including the Diocese of Salt Lake City reports Fox 13. LGBT advocates praised it, according to Religion News Service:

“Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign, said the law will have a  “dramatically positive effect on the LGBT youth of Utah,” because it dramatizes to Mormon parents that their church accepts the dignity of LGBT people.

“Clifford Rosky, professor of law at the University of Utah and board chairman of Equality Utah, said adding bans on discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s anti-discrimination measures was a critical first step. Rosky also cited the new speech protections for employees outside the workplace.”

The press conference announcing the law included LGBT advocates standing next to Mormon leaders. For Utah, which is ranked by Gallup as the fourth most conservative state in America, expanding LGBT equality was enacted by a remarkable political process.  Although the process was imperfect, according to all sides, the dialogue and compromise Utahans performed exhibited a satisfactory step forward.  A columnist in the The Star Press expands on this idea, writing:

“The precise language of the Utah’s law, of course, is not a one-size-fits-all solution readily transferable to other states. Existing civil rights laws and religious freedom exemptions vary from state to state, so any recipe for compromise in other places will require a somewhat different mix of protections and exemptions.

“Despite these caveats and remaining disagreements, the spirit of the Utah agreement — the willingness to seek a balance between nondiscrimination and religious freedom acceptable to people on all sides — can, and should be replicated elsewhere.”

Religious liberty discussions can be misleading, for adjudicating religious liberty and LGBT equality is not a zero-sum game. Treating it as such only hurts the common good. For the Christian, protecting religious liberty is one and the same with advancing LGBT rights as matters of justice and equality for all God’s people. In future disputes about religious liberty, Catholics must position themselves as bridge-builders for divided interests.  A third way approach, like we saw in Utah rather, is so much more preferable than our church’s leaders lending their voices to those who desire to discriminate.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Related Articles

National Catholic Reporter, “Catholic Mission, Religious Freedom, & LGBT Rights”

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

9 replies
  1. Chris Nunez
    Chris Nunez says:

    Again, this photo op is published, but there is no caption identifying these religious either as individuals or the order, community they are part of. This is a grave disservice to everyone.

    • Friends
      Friends says:

      I think they were packed into the DeLorean Time Machine — (from the classic hit movie “Back To The Future”) — and fast-forwarded here from the Eighteenth Century! But they’re the perfect “extras” for this whole crazy and now infamous “retro” caper — which has just blown up in the Governor’s face.

  2. colormeanew
    colormeanew says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with this article. However, a third way or common ground is hard to reach when there are so many church leaders and members who view and treat lgbt individuals as being less. I often see popular catholic and conservative bloggers, politicians, etc start with,” well as catholics it does say that being gay is distorted but it says also to treat them with love,respect,and dignity.” But the second part is often self determined in such a way that treats lgbt people as if they are bad children (or worse satan’s servants) that need to be “lovingly” told no on various issues and redirected….agh

  3. Friends
    Friends says:

    The “good” news, I suppose: this bill has provoked such widespread anger and outrage that the protest against it is making headline news on the major broadcast networks — and the governor keeps trying to change the subject, when he’s asked directly by reporters if this bill allows business owners to ban GLBT folks from their premises. He stubbornly refuses to give a direct answer to the question. Apparently the legislature is now drafting “amending language” to this infamous bill, recognizing that the outrage against it has gone viral on an international scale. We would expect this sort of vicious flim-flam in the Sovereign Confederate Republic of Alabama — but in Indiana? I thought Indiana was a reasonably civilized and down-to-earth part of the country. I’m baffled.

  4. John King
    John King says:

    Is it not true that some gay folks have, at least in part, brought this upon them selves. It seems to me that if gay people had not taken wedding planners, bakeries, photographers, etc. to court because they didn’t want to participate in gay weddings then maybe these bills wouldn’t be happening. Any business is happy to sell anyone a hamburger, iPad, car, a pair of pants, etc. but it’s a completely different matter to force someone to be part of a gay wedding which can require them to work intimately with the people getting married. Most business’s value money over anything else and would have been happy to provide the services that the other business didn’t want to.

    • Friends
      Friends says:

      It’s an interesting and arguable point, John. But if someone presents themselves as a “wedding photography business”, and then decides to sit in personal judgment over — in their opinion — the moral integrity of the couple getting married, then perhaps wedding photography is not the proper or suitable business for them to be pursuing. Paraphrasing Pope Francis: who are THEY to judge the moral integrity of two people who clearly love each other? I think a more dramatic example would be to have two practicing Satanists — (yes, there is indeed a “Church Of Satan”!) — show up and ask to have their wedding photography performed in the Satanic Temple by a professing Christian. Now THAT would be a genuine moral conundrum, as I see it. And if the wedding ceremony itself involved sexual debauchery as part of the ritual…well…you get the picture, so to speak. (I’d be very interested to hear our moderators’ reflections on this suggested hypothetical, FWIW.)


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