The question of religious freedom has been a hot-button issue this past spring, fueled by the Indiana debacle, and the fact that close to thirty other states are considering numerous religious freedom bills, many of which, as we saw in Indiana, are lightly veiled efforts to allow any person claiming religious motivations to discriminate against LGBT people.
But the one important compromise that occurred this year was the Utah bill which simultaneously protected religious liberty and outlawed LGBT discrimination. This law’s passage was also noteworthy because the Mormon Church, which has a long anti-gay past, and has one of the most powerful political forces in the state, ended up supporting the measure. Less well-known, though, is the fact that the Catholic bishop of Salt Lake City (just recently appointed to be Archbishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico), also ended up supporting the bill, though support came late in the process.
The National Catholic Reporter’s Father Thomas Reese, SJ, a political scientist by training, examined the involvement of these two powerful, traditionally anti-gay, institutions in a column recently, noting that the Mormons’ leadership in this area could be an example to Catholic bishops in other states. Reese recounts the timeline of Catholic involvement in the Utah process:
“The Catholic diocese of Salt Lake City was not part of the negotiations over the legislation, but it had for the last two years supported nondiscrimination legislation in the state. According to Jean Hill, the diocese’s lobbyist, the diocese supported the legislation at the conclusion of the process when it was being voted on by the legislature and going to the governor for his signature.
” ‘From our perspective as a Catholic diocese,’ said Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City, ‘we felt that this legislation honored the rights of both the LGBT community as well as the religious community. It allowed us to have our beliefs in the public square and to have people in the LGBT community not being discriminated against in such basic things as housing and employment. We felt it was in line with our Catholic social teaching.’
“After the legislation was signed into law, the diocese issued a statement saying that the legislation ensures ‘that all people in Utah have equal access to at least two essential services — housing and employment — while also protecting religious freedom.’
” ‘The teachings of our church are clear — God loves each of us, regardless of, or perhaps because of, our flaws, sins or failings,’ the statement continued. ‘If we believe we are all created and loved by our God, we can do nothing less than support a bill that protects individuals from discrimination when seeking a place to live or a means of supporting themselves. The bill strikes a fair and just balance between providing for these basic needs and protecting the rights of people of faith to exercise their beliefs.’ “
Wester also acknowledged that was very successful in the Utah example was not just the product, but the process. The significant thing, he said was
“. . .that members of the community can come together, obviously representing different constituencies, and can dialogue and can try to work something out in a respectful, courteous manner that will allow for all parties to feel that they have been listened to. I thought that was significant. You don’t have to be constantly haranguing one another.”
Too often, too many Catholic bishops opt for an adversarial relationship, and not a collaborative one. Such a posture makes it seem that they do not want to give up their status as “victims” in these scenarios, and are hoping for an all-or-nothing outcome.
Father Reese offers the bishops a warning and some advice:
“Time is running out for the bishops. They need to take the initiative in supporting legislation banning discrimination against gays while protecting their religious liberty concerns. They have to stop being simply negative. Too much of their talk is legalistic when it should be pastoral. They need to speak like pastors. They need to sit down with gay rights leaders and try to work out a deal.”
And he continues to go even further than just religious freedom laws, chastising the bishops for supporting the firings of LGBT employees from church institutions:
“No matter what kind of exemptions are provided to church institutions, the bishops still need to rethink their attitude toward their gay employees. It is totally inconsistent to punish gays for violating the church’s teaching on sex if the church does not also punish heterosexual employees for sexual sins.
“The church employs Catholics and others who have been divorced and remarried, and it even gives benefits to their new spouses. Church institutions also do not normally fire unmarried employees who are having sex. No one thinks that these actions by the church imply its endorsement of its employees’ lifestyles. Treating gay employees the same as heterosexual employees would not make people think the church has changed its teaching. “
In his conclusion, Reese provides the bishops with language that they should be using, instead of the negative stonewalling which has been their political style in these cases:
“It is time for bishops to stand up and say, ‘There is nothing Christlike about discriminating against gay people, firing them from their jobs, turning them down for housing, so let’s work to protect them, and let’s also get some of the protections we need.’ It is time for the bishops to follow the Mormons.”
The Mormon leadership and the Catholic Church leadership infamously joined together to pass Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage bill in California. If they were able to work together then, they should be able to do the same when it comes to protecting religious freedom and non-discrimination.
The issue of religious freedom will be with us for a while. The bishops would do well by examining this successful process in Utah. Most importantly, they need to remember that they are bishops of all Catholics–both LGBT and heterosexual–so, while protecting religious freedom, they also have a duty to prevent discrimination.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry