With North Carolina’s passage of a “license to discriminate” law that now jeopardizes LGBT communities’ civil rights in the states, new attention is being afforded to similar legislation across the U.S. This year alone, there have been at least 105 bills in statehouses across the country which seek to protect those who discriminate against LGBT people or otherwise curtail civil rights tied to sexual orientation and gender identity, often in the name of religious freedom.
How have Catholics responded to this latest struggle for full legal equality? Bondings 2.0 highlights two developments below.
Support from Catholic Governors and the Laity
Catholic governors have intervened to defend LGBT civil rights in at least two states where these “license to discriminate” movements popped up. In Louisiana, Governor John Bel Edwards announced his intention to rescind an executive order which allows discrimination against LGBT people. The order was signed by former Governor Bobby Jindal, who is also Catholic, about which The Advocate reported:
“Jindal, a Republican who once sought his party’s presidential nomination, last year issued the Marriage and Conscience Order, which bars the state from taking punitive action against an individual, business, or nonprofit group acting in accordance with a ‘religious belief that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman.’ “
Edwards’ Press Secretary Shauna Sanford said the current governor “intends to rescind it in the near future.” He will replace the old executive order with a new one protecting LGBT state employees from discrimination.
In Virginia, Governor Terry McAuliffe, a Catholic, vetoed Senate Bill 41 aimed at protecting those who discriminate based upon someone’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity. McAuliffe said the bill was “nothing more than an attempt to stigmatize,” reported the Washington Blade, and added:
“Legislation that immunizes the discriminatory actions of certain people and institutions at the expense of same-sex couples would damage Virginia’s reputation for commonsense, pro-business government.”
Thankfully, Edwards and McAuliffe have joined the vast majority of U.S. Catholics who oppose such legislation despite some bishops’ problematic support for these bills. Data from the Public Religion Research Institute revealed 61% of U.S. Catholics opposed allowing business owners to deny services to LGBT people and 73% endorsed non-discrimination protections related to sexual and gender identities.
As with marriage equality laws and LGBT justice at large, these Catholics oppose LGBT discrimination because of their faith and not in spite of it. This was well articulated in a recent statement by the Catholic Committee on Appalachia against such legislation proposed in West Virginia:
“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.”
The Quandary of Catholic Bishops
Catholic bishops have often been ambivalent, at best, in opposing discrimination. Most recently, North Carolina’s two bishops have been thus far silent about passage of that state’s anti-LGBT law.
Yet, two Catholic bishops in Georgia have responded somewhat positively to Governor Nathan Deal’s veto of a “license to discriminate” law there.
In a statement, reported by diocesan newspaper The Southern Cross, Atlanta’s Archbishop Wilton Gregory and Savannah’s Bishop Gregory Hartmayer said they “do not support any implementation of [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] in a way that will discriminate against any individual” because each person’s dignity is “the basis for religious liberty.” Acknowledging the governor’s veto would not end the debate over LGBT civil rights and religious freedom, the bishops added:
“Under these circumstances, the general well-being of the state requires that all respectfully acknowledge the worthy motivations on each side and progress into a future of dialogue which, more than continually revising legislative language, will focus on greater compassion and mercy so that every individual can develop his or her full potential.”
More bishops need to recognize the violations of church teaching on human dignity and non-discrimination which are inherent in religious freedom bills. Too many bishops in the U.S. have yet to stand with LGBT communities and instead seemingly remain opposed to LGBT equality altogether .
While episcopal opposition to marriage equality was robust and well-financed, this new battleground about non-discrimination laws is less clear, wrote Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter. Winters pointed out an important language development in the debate which reveals the problem U.S. society faces with these laws:
“But, in all the news coverage of the Georgia legislation and veto, the thing that should really give the bishops pause is the fact that many news outlets routinely now place the words religious liberty in scare quotes as ‘religious liberty’ as if to say, ‘so-called.’ A fundamental principle of our constitutional system, that has served the nation very well for over two hundred years, is now rendered in scare quotes. And, yes, the bishops are partly responsible for this unhappy outcome. By listening to the professional agitators who wield an extreme interpretation of religious liberty as their hammer, and just so see any and all issues as a secularist nail, the bishops have been complicit in a political and legal strategy that has precious little to do with Catholic doctrine.”
In Winters’ estimation, the bishops are at a decision point about their political and pastoral future that includes confronting “why some of them seem intent on preventing gays and lesbians from working for Church organizations when there are plenty of other sins that do not prevent employment.” More than 60 church workers have lost their jobs in LGBT-related disputes since 2008.
No justification for the bishops’ support of discrimination. The bishops should listen carefully and humbly to the many Catholics who have articulated their support for LGBT civil rights in law and in deeds.Bishops should applaud Catholic governors like Edwards and McAuliffe who have actively opposed discrimination and who have endorsed LGBT nondiscrimination protections. That would be a real defense of religious liberty.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry