Catholics Should Not Wait for Courts on LGBT Church Workers' Rights


Jeffrey Higgins, right, and his husband Robert

Will Catholic institutions continue to be legally protected when they fire LGBT church workers who enter same-gender marriages?

This is a pivotal question for U.S. Catholics in 2016 with marriage equality legalized, but bolstered non-discrimination protections still absent, a tension highlighted by two recent incidents reported on by The Washington Post’s Michelle Boorstein.

The first case is a Massachusetts judge’s ruling that a Catholic high school discriminated against fired gay employee Matthew Barrett. The second is the late 2015 firing of Jeffrey Higgins as a Maryland parish’s cantor. Boorstein explained:

“A source of contention is the word ‘ministry.’ Courts have established without question that churches can pick their own ministers. But for some faith-based groups, everyone is part of spreading the faith. . .

“There are federal laws that protect religious liberty and ban discrimination, and then there are state laws that don’t always match. Some states have anti-discrimination laws but not religious liberty protections, and some have the opposite. What your rights are as a gay employee or customer or as a religious boss could depend on where you live.”

This ministerial exemption has been used by religious institutions to justify legally discrimination against LGBT people, including an attempt by the school in Barrett’s case to claim his role as food services director made him a minister. The Archdiocese of Washington called Higgins a “music minister.” The patchwork nature of non-discrimination protections has further contributed to more than 60 church workers losing their jobs in LGBT-related disputes since 2008.

Legal disputes aside, there are more pressing questions of ethics and identity for the Catholic Church when it comes to LGBT church workers.  DignityUSA’s Executive Director Marianne Duddy-Burke said:

” ‘I and many other Catholics believe there is a higher moral standard to which the church should be held. . .We have decades of incredibly profound statements on the dignity of work and the right of workers to be respected. . .shouldn’t the church be held to the same standard it demands of others?’ “

Duddy-Burke said that if church officials “ban people from exercising civil rights” at odds with Catholic teaching, then they must begin firing everyone who dissents, including those who are divorced or pro-death penalty.

Legal processes take years, sometimes decades, and legislative solutions for LGBT protections at a federal level seem stalled until after the 2016 elections. As the courts determine how U.S. law will adjudicate interests like religious liberty and equality under the law, church workers like Jeffrey Higgins continue to be harmed. These are devastating incidents to those discriminated against and to the communities in which they occur.

The following words from Pope Francis are worth meditating on for LGBT advocates and church leaders alike as we consider how to live as a church which abides by the same Gospel values it professes:

“So many past controversies between Christians can be overcome when we put aside all polemical or apologetic approaches, and seek instead to grasp more fully what unites us, namely, our call to share in the mystery of the [Creator’s] love revealed to us by the Son through the Holy Spirit. Christian unity, we are convinced, will not be the fruit of subtle theoretical discussions in which each party tries to convince the other of the soundness of their opinions. When the [Human One] comes, he will find us still discussing! We need to realize that, to plumb the depths of the mystery of God, we need one another, we need to encounter one another and to challenge one another under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who harmonizes diversities and overcomes conflicts, reconciles differences.”

Rather than expelling LGBT church workers and their allies, particularly when marriage is involved, Catholic institutions should look to the experiences of encounter and reconciliation as guiding lights. There can be a great unity in diversity, as medieval theologians termed it, which allows the church to live out its mission more forcefully while respecting conscience decisions and differing ways of living. Jeffrey Higgins has affirmed repeatedly in interviews that he knows he is loved by God. He should not have to wait for a court’s mandate for his church to affirm that divine love and celebrate his call to sing God’s praises.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

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