CATHOLIC HISTORY: Washington State Bishops Support Gay and Lesbian Rights

“This Month in Catholic LGBT History” is Bondings 2.0’s  feature to educate readers of the rich history—positive and negative—that has taken place over the last four decades regarding Catholic LGBT equality issues.  We hope it will show people how far our Church has come, ways that it has regressed, and how far we still have to go.

Once a  month, Bondings 2.0 staff will produce a post on Catholic LGBT news events from the past 38 years.  We will comb through editions of Bondings 2.0’s predecessor: Bondings,  New Ways Ministry’s newsletter in paper format.   We began publishing Bondings in 1978. Unfortunately, because these newsletters are only archived in hard copies, we cannot link back to the primary sources in most cases. 

Bishops Call for Protection of Gay and Lesbian Rights

In these days when we see so many Catholic bishops making “religious liberty” arguments that would promote discrimination against LGBT people, it’s good to look back a few decades when some bishops were speaking out in favor of gay and lesbian civil rights. (Bisexual and transgender weren’t on the “radar” then.)

On May 12, 1994, The Catholic Messenger of Davenport, Iowa, printed a Catholic News Service story with the headline, “Bishops Oppose Moves to  Restrict Homosexuals’ Rights in Washington.”

The story reported on the fact that the Catholic Conference of Washington State was encouraging people to oppose two ballot initiatives that would curb gay and lesbian civil rights.  The story began:

“Two proposed ballot questions restricting homosexual rights in Washington state are morally wrong because they could foster discrimination against homosexuals, according to the state’s three Catholic bishops.

” ‘Actions and laws that promote prejudice and bigotry diminish our civil and religious communities,’ said a late April statement of the Washington State Catholic Conference, ‘Singling out a particular group of people for discrimination based on who they are is morally wrong.’

“Members of the conference are Archbishop Thomas Murphy of Seattle and Bishops William Skylstad of Spokane and Francis George of Yakima.” [Editor’s note:   Francis George would go on to lead the Archdiocese of Chicago where his administration was marked by numerous anti-gay statements.]

Archbishop Thomas Murphy

The story explained that citizens were trying to get Initiatives 608 and 610 on the ballot, and described their content:

“Initiative 608 would ‘prohibit government from “according rights or protections based on sexual orientation” and would ban schools from presenting homosexuality as acceptable.  Initiative 610 would prohibit ‘rights based on homosexuality, homosexuals’ custody of their own or other children, and government approval of homosexuality.”

At the same time, the bishops also opposed a bill “that would have made heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality legally equivalent by defining them as a ‘class’ for civil rights protection.”

In other words, the bishops seemed to be saying “no special rights, but also no curtailing of rights.”

Archbishop Murphy went on to explain why they opposed the ballot initiatives:

“They contradict the inherent dignity of human person by discriminating against them for who they are.”

He added that he was asking that Catholic parishes and schools not be used to collect signatures for the ballot initiatives.  (To show how much times have changed: In 2012, Murphy’s successor, Archbishop Peter Sartain called on parishes to collect signatures to promote a ballot initiative which would have repealed the state’s newly minted marriage equality law.  A number of Catholic parishes protested this request and would not allow signatures to be collected on their premises.)

This story serves as a reminder, despite the messages that are being offered today from bishops about “religious liberty,” that Catholic teaching protects the rights of all people and does not condone any form of discrimination.

What has changed over these years is the advent of marriage equality, making lesbian, gay, and also bisexual and transgender people more visible.  It seems that Catholic leaders today are forgetting the solid teaching against discrimination in favor of trying to pretend they can live in a world where marriage equality doesn’t exist.

It is also instructive to remember an earlier Washington State Catholic Conference message.  In 1983, in their policy document entitled “The Prejudice Against Homosexuals and the Ministry of the Church,”  the Washington State bishops, under the leadership of Seattle’s Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, prophetically said:

“. . . the prejudice against homosexuals is a greater infringement of the norms of Christian morality than is homosexual orientation or activity.”

Today’s bishops would do well to remember that wisdom before they speak out about who can adopt children or who should be allowed to buy a cake.

To review other church teachings on non-discrimination of LGBT people, please see New Ways Ministry’s website page “Church Teaching on Prejudice, Discrimination, and Civil Rights.”

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, May 29, 2018




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