Church Worker Rights a Key Concern for Year of Mercy

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LGBT workers’ rights remain deficient at Catholic institutions, a divisive reality demanding even greater attention in 2016 despite a few victories in 2015. Pope Francis’ Jubilee Year of Mercy, which began December 8th, is a moment asking all Catholics hard questions about how our church cares for its faithful employees.

This year was more hopeful for employment concerns than previous years. In April, U.S. church workers formed a solidarity network. In May, German bishops approved new employment policies protecting LGBT church workers. In July, Fordham University publicly congratulated the chair of its theology department on his same-gender marriage. In September, St. Mary’s Academy, Portland, Oreogn, reversed its dismissal of a lesbian counselor and introduced an LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination policy. Most recently, a Massachusetts court ruling stated  Matthew Barrett was discriminated against when a Catholic school withdrew its food services director contract offer when they learned he was a married gay man.

Despite these developments, at least fourteen church workers lost their job in LGBT-related employment disputes this year, including Jeffrey Higgins’ recent firing as a Maryland parish’s cantor. Nearly 60 church workers have lost their jobs since New Ways Ministry began tracking all public incidents in 2008. Commenting on Matthew Barrett’s case, Francis DeBernardo of New Ways Ministry told the Boston Globe a plain truth:

“It’s something the Catholic Church still hasn’t been able to deal with.”

Unless new policies are implemented to protect LGBT church workers’ rights, it is unlikely these firings and forced resignations will cease in the coming year. This seems particularly true because conservative opponents of equality continue using fabricated religious liberty concerns in their attempts to justify discrimination and exclusion. U.S. bishops refused to admit a post-Obergefell reality at their November meeting, choosing again to concentrate on marriage and religious liberty issues.

The Supreme Court’s June ruling legalizing marriage equality is a landmark legal case. Stephen Schneck noted in U.S. Catholic that this decision will impact many areas of law in many ways. But he refuted any notion that the religious liberty at Catholic institutions is being severely curtailed:

“How the Obergefell ruling will eventually play out isn’t fully clear, but as I have argued previously, religious liberty concerns have been exaggerated. Just as Catholic institutions in the United States have found ways to work with the country’s laws regarding divorce and remarriage, I believe our institutions will also gradually find ways to deal with the legality of same-sex marriage. . .

“Worries about the burden imposed on religious liberty here seem overblown in regard to religious institutions.  For important ministerial positions, every indication is that the courts recognize that religions have the authority to apply religious criteria. But for non-ministerial positions religious institutions will be required to abide by the implications of the law.”

Schneck further asserted that, in some cases, religious liberty concerns expressed by Catholic institutions are covers to exempt them from labor laws church officials simply find burdensome, such as union organization by adjunct faculty at colleges.

More legal disputes around same-sex marriage’s implications for the church will be a reality in 2016. Sadly, more LGBT church workers who are committed and skilled at their jobs will likely be forced out. Fighting for justice in the courts is necessary. When it comes to employees at Catholic institutions, however, a tremendous impact has already been made by the People of God when communities where such firings occur stand up and say: “Not in our name.”

An editorial in the National Catholic Reporter has said the Year of Mercy now underway is a “year of big questions or the year to ask questions.” A strict legalism dictated church affairs for 35 years, about which the editors said:

“The fear inspired by legalism dominated the community’s life for decades, but we’ve learned that fear stifles and kills; it does not nourish or transform. Mercy is an encounter with the other, and ultimately an experience of God. Mercy is transformation. That is Francis’ message this holy year.”

Pope Francis, the editorial concluded, has said mercy must come before judgment. Catholic institutions and the communities which they serve should look at their employment policies this year and ask whether they are just, not according to civil laws (although these are crucial too), but according to God’s law of mercy.

It is time to ask tough questions at every parish, school, and social service agency. Is firing an LGBT church worker putting mercy before judgment? Are these exclusionary actions really what Catholic identity means? Is our community’s care for employees really transformed by God’s mercy? How does the church’s mission suffer when we lose wonderful church workers?

Progress happened for church workers’ rights in 2015, but we still have a long way to go. The responsibility is on each of us to take action this coming year. To get started, consider getting an LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination policy passed at your Catholic parish, school, hospital, or social service agency. You can find more information on making this change here.

For Bondings 2.0‘s full coverage of this story, and other LGBT-related church worker disputes, click the ‘Employment Issues‘ category to the right or here. You can click here to find a full listing of the more than 50 incidents since 2008 where church workers have lost their jobs over LGBT identity, same-sex marriages, or public support for equality.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

3 replies
  1. rachelfs
    rachelfs says:

    yes, time to ask the tough questions–one senses that while the questions remain tough they can no longer be so easily turned away from, denied, crucified for asking–where there has been neither justice nor mercy, there may yet be hope/conscience and the ability to hear the questions–it does seem to me that it is plain more difficult to deny the validity of the questions


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] of Mercy will end in just a few months, and I still believe that church worker justice should be a central concern for this Jubilee Year. It is not too late to turn the page on this wounding period in church […]

  2. […] workers’ rights are, as this blog noted yesterday, a preeminent issue with which Catholic communities must grapple in 2016, the Year of Mercy. The […]

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