The following is a statement from Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry’s Executive Director, in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling about religious exemptions in employment law.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel not to protect workers at religious institutions from employment discrimination leaves many people, especially LGBTQ people, vulnerable to being fired by institutions that should be the model of fairness and equality, not bigotry and exclusion. This decision is a sad and contradictory follow-up to the Court’s June 15th Title VII decision which sought to protect LGBTQ people from employment discrimination.
Although these two recent employment cases did not involve LGBTQ issues or people, the ruling bolsters church officials’ broad claim to a religious exemption from federal anti-discrimination law in a variety of situations, including cases involving sexual and gender minorities. Over the past decade, we have seen over 100 public cases where people have lost their jobs at Catholic schools and parishes because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, or support for LGBTQ people. [For a listing of these cases click here; for resources on Catholic employment discrimination against LGBTQ people click here.] This record is shameful, especially given the Catholic Church’s teachings on respect for all people’s human dignity and defense of worker rights.
Whether or not civil law allows for religious institutions to discriminate against their employees, Catholic officials are answerable to the law of God to treat all people with equal respect. Their own teaching demands they respect the rights of workers.
As Pope Paul VI said, “All people have the right to work, to a chance to develop their qualities and their personalities in the exercise of their professions, to equitable remuneration which will enable them and their families to lead a worthy life on the material, social, cultural and spiritual level. . .” (Octogesima Adveniens, 14). The Catholic Church has an impressive record of defending the rights of workers in the secular world, supporting unions in their struggle for better working conditions and just wages. Yet, the church has not treated its employees with the same sense of fairness.
Catholics in the pews have strongly internalized these teachings on workers’ rights and see the wisdom in applying these approaches to LGBTQ people employed by church agencies. Every time an employee at a Catholic institution has lost a job because of LGBTQ issues, lay Catholics have protested the church’s unjust actions. If Catholic leaders feel emboldened by this new ruling to continue firing LGBTQ people from their jobs, they will face an immense outcry from Catholics who want their church to act justly.
Even though the U.S. Supreme Court did not provide justice for LGBTQ employees in Catholic agencies, Catholic people in the pews will demand that their bishops and other leaders do so. The struggle is not over. It has simply moved to another venue.
LGBTQ people serve in all sorts of capacities and roles in the church. They are teachers, social workers, nuns, doctors, nurses, parish administrators, scholars, priests—and, yes, even bishops themselves. Were all LGBTQ people fired from their church jobs, the work of the church would come to a screeching halt. Nothing would get done.
Singling out a person’s sexuality, gender identity, or marital status as the litmus tests for orthodoxy invalidates a person’s gift of labor to the church based on only one aspect of his or her life, ignoring all other professional, relational, spiritual gifts. This is blatant discrimination and the height of religious myopia. Early Christians labeled this kind of thinking the Donatist heresy. They recognized, and the church still holds, that no person in the church—not even the pope—is ever free of sinfulness or in full agreement and harmony with all the church’s teaching. Yet, effective church service can still be performed by people that leaders think imperfect.
If bishops feel they have achieved a victory with this court ruling, they are sorely wrong. If they exercise their new powers by continuing discriminatory employment practice, they not only will lose some of their best employees, but they will also lose what little respect lay Catholics still hold for the church’s leaders.
—Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, July 9, 2020