Pope Francis has designated this March as a time to pray for persecuted Christians around the globe, that the entire church may offer them loving support as they face repression. In recent years, many U.S. Christians, including the Catholic bishops, have framed movement toward LGBT equality as matters which threaten religious liberty. For example, they claim that bakery store owners who oppose marriage equality on religious grounds would experience persecution if the law said they had to bake a wedding cake for a same-gender couple.
But when Pope Francis asks us to pray for persecuted Christians, saying they are “forced to abandon their homes, their places of worship, their lands, their loved ones!” and are “killed because they are Christians,” he is not referring to bakers and florists and Catholic healthcare systems. It’s past time for the U.S. bishops to be clear: LGBT rights do not threaten religious liberty, and Christians are not being persecuted because marriage equality is now legal.
Since the 2015 Supreme Court decision enacting marriage equality (and even before that), the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been vigorously arguing that LGBT equality can cause harm to people of faith. Despite 49 people being massacred at an LGBT nightclub last June, the Conference proceeded days later with its annual Fortnight for Freedom against women’s and LGBT equality.
Elsewhere, right wing Catholic groups have sued former President Obama’s administration over healthcare regulations aimed at protecting LGBT patients. Legal efforts have been led by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is in part funded by the Knights of Columbus. And a few Catholic bishops signed a letter claiming religious liberty was undermined where sexual orientation and/or gender identity had been made protected classes.
Perhaps worst of all, the U.S. bishops were nearly silent about harmful remarks by then-candidate Donald Trump that targeted minorities and other vulnerable communities. Jamie Manson of the National Catholic Reporter said Trump’s victory rewards the bishops who have been obsessed with abortion and sexuality politics, but with a high cost. Manson said that candidate Trump “inspired hate-speech, xenophobia, bias crimes, and violence toward women.” She continued:
“[T]he evidence suggests that the bishops’ conference threw under the bus the needs of these vulnerable peoples for the sake of advancing their anti-abortion, anti-LGBT, right-wing religious liberty agenda.
“And what will this crusade for religious liberty gain in the end? A woman’s painful choice to have an abortion will only become more agonized, difficult and unsafe. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people may be able to keep their marriages, but their rights to work, housing, benefits and services will no longer be guaranteed under the law.
“The bishops, of course, will continue to rest in absolute security, their rights protected, their privileges untouchable, their every need taken care of.”
Theologian Michael Peppard explored the bishops’ blind spot well in Commonweal, saying the bishops’ recent statement on religious liberty mentioned neither the plight of U.S. Muslims nor refugees fleeing violence. He commented:
“The most basic religious freedoms do not involve taxes or bureaucratic forms. Religious liberty—the kind that is ‘first, and most cherished’—means not to be harassed, surveilled, or killed for one’s religion. And to welcome those fleeing such conditions abroad, to the extent that we can, and prevent those conditions within our borders.”
Christians in the world are facing real persecution for professing a belief in Jesus Christ. Their situation is dire, with some Middle East churches collapsing altogether. Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, and other religious minorities in the U.S. have faced intensifying discrimination and violence, encouraged by government actions like the second attempt to ban Muslim immigrants.
In their flawed approach to religious liberty, the bishops have contributed to this harm that has cut two ways: needless suffering has been inflicted uponagains LGBT people and their loved ones while the suffering of religious people facing genuine persecution has largely been ignored in the U.S. church.
But this need not be the case: a majority of Catholics reject legal discrimination against LGBT people and have generally supported LGBT rights, and religious liberty is actually a progressive and highly Catholic idea that is not, as the bishops imply, a zero-sum exercise.
So let this March, as we join our prayers for persecuted Christians with Pope Francis’, be a moment in which U.S. church leaders reset their troubled relationship with religious liberty. Let’s pray that the U.S. Catholic bishops stop using religious liberty to oppress LGBT people and their loved ones, and instead that they amplify their defense of any and all peoples who are genuinely persecuted for having faith.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, March 7, 2016
Religious liberty will be a plenary session topic at New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, is scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. Plenary speakers: Lisa Fullam, Leslie Griffin, Rev. Bryan Massingale, Frank Mugisha. Prayer leaders: Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Bishop John Stowe, OFM, Conv. Pre-Symposium Retreat Leader: Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS. For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.