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