Catholic opposition to West Virginia’s religious freedom bill has taken another step forward as the West Virginia chapter of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) issued a statement urging lawmakers to reject the legislation, saying that it would be a “license to discriminate.”
Among the CCA’s several arguments against the bill, known as HB 4012, was one based heavily in Catholic social teaching:
“Catholics are called by God to oppose discrimination in all of its forms. No religious conviction justifies our treatment of anyone as a second-class citizen. All are made in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, religious freedom does not trump civil rights, as both are important and should be protected equally.”
HB 4012, modeled on the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), is designed to allow individuals and organizations to be exempt from non-discrimination laws and policies, if they claim it is based on sincerely-held religious belief. Yesterday, Bondings 2.0 offered a post on some of the way Catholics have been involved on both sides of the debate. The bill could come up for a House vote this week.
The CCA statement uses strong language to criticize Catholic officials who support the bill:
Our Roman Catholic Church is one of the most powerful institutions in the nation and the state of West Virginia, commanding a tremendous amount of wealth and influence. It also teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman. Whereas the First Amendment protects our Church’s privilege and teaching, we do not believe the legalization of gay marriage threatens either. We cannot claim social victimization, thus, reinforcement for freedom of religion by a state law is not necessary.
We take issue with this bill, and the Diocese of Wheeling Charleston’s support of it, because the use of our privilege to secure our own interests would endanger the civil rights of those most excluded in our midst. Roman Catholicism has historically fallen short in practicing equality and the protection of the dignity of the human person especially when that person has happened to be female or has had a sexual orientation other than that of the majority. When our Church has failed in these ways, it has often done so on the grounds of our religious beliefs. We would only be exacerbating this trend if we supported HB 4012, and affirming that the “Church is the cross on which Christ was crucified.” [Editor’s note: A footnote to the CCA’s text explains this final quotation: ” ‘The Church is the Cross on which Christ was crucified’ is a quotation from 20th century priest and theologian Romano Guardini which Dorothy Day cited throughout her life.”]
On its website, the CCA offers this description of itself:
“CCA is a network of faith-based people raising a prophetic voice for Appalachia & her people. . . . Since 1970, the Catholic Committee of Appalachia has existed to serve Appalachia, her poor and the entire web of creation. As a membership based organization, CCA stands in solidarity with its members on issues of concern to them. Mountaintop removal, labor, private prison development, sustainable lifestyles and communities, poverty, health, clean water, racism and climate change are among those which CCA has addressed.”
Their statement opposing HB 4012 recognized that marriage equality’s arrival in the state should not interfere with the basic Catholic principle of non-discrimination:
Regardless of any stance on gay marriage, CCA, along with many other West Virginia Catholics, stands with women, our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, and all victims of discrimination, especially those who are targeted in the name of religion. Catholics can proudly and confidently demonstrate faithfulness to church teaching on discrimination precisely by opposing this bill. As one of our members who advocates for youth said, ‘We don’t need [HB 4012] and, on a very practical level, it would make it easier for people to make gay rural kids’ lives hell.’ “
And they argue that religious opponents of marriage equality are using religious freedom arguments to express their displeasure with the new reality of legal same-gender couples:
“With the recent legalization of gay marriage, many Christians, including Catholics, are uncomfortable recognizing this right. It follows that the perceived need for fortification of religious freedom has been most emphasized by those with Christian privilege.”
In addition to these religious arguments, the CCA statement also points out that West Virginia’s religious diversity is its own protection against violations of religious freedom, and that
“. . . .[W]e see no need for religious freedom to be “restored” in West Virginia because, as a fundamental value written into the U.S. Constitution and protected by law, it is a freedom which has never been lost here.”
They also support the economic argument that laws which allow discrimination would result in a decrease in visitors to the state, and the resulting loss of revenue would harm the most vulnerable.
The CCA statement is one of the strongest and most insightful critiques of religious freedom supporters to come from faith-based people. The concluding paragraph to this statement highlights the basic religious values that motivated its authors to express their viewpoint:
“For these reasons, Catholic Committee of Appalachia says ‘No’ to HB 4012 on behalf the vulnerable and excluded people in our Diocese who would be most adversely affected if this bill were to pass: those facing joblessness, women, children and the LGBT community.”
You can read the entire statement by clicking here--and I encourage you to do so! It is a model for how to argue for true religious liberty. Their thoughts reflect the best of Catholic teaching and values. Amen!
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry