LGBTQ Catholics, Advocates Sharply Criticize Supreme Court Ruling on Religious Exemptions

U.S. Supreme Court

Catholics and LGBTQ advocates have responded critically to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision earlier this week that religious institutions enjoy a wide exemption from employment non-discrimination laws, which leaves many workers in Catholic institutions, especially LGBTQ people, vulnerable to being fired.

The consolidated cases, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel, involved teachers at Catholic schools who sued for discrimination, in the former case, age discrimination, and in the latter, disability discrimination. But the implications in the Court’s 7-2 ruling mean that Catholic institutions could fire employees for many reasons which would otherwise be illegal, including on the basis of gender identity and/or sexual orientation, even though the Supreme Court’s ruling on Title VII last month outlawed such reasons for secular employers.

The decision was criticized by many theologians, advocates, pastoral ministers, and LGBTQ people, some of whom appealed to church officials to not discriminate even if they are now legally allowed to do so. New Ways Ministry issued a statement saying, “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.” To read the full statement, click here.

Jamie Manson, a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, picked up on the irony of church leaders’ conflicting stance on who constitutes a minister, tweeting:

“It’s amazing that a church that refuses to ordain most people is also willing to see so many people as “ministers” — if they need to fire them.”

Jason Steidl, a theologian in New York City involved with the Out at St. Paul LGBTQ ministry, tweeted:

“The right to discriminate against church employees is the hill upon which many Catholic bishops will kill the institutional church.”

Franciscan Fr. Dan Horan, a theologian, condemned the religious exemption. He wrote on Twitter:

“‘Religious exemption for discrimination’ makes as much sense as an ‘ethical exemption for murder.’ In the words of #hamiltonmusical ‘History has its eyes on you!’ and history will not look kindly on Christianity’s recourse to state power to justify the dehumanization of others.”

Michael Bayer, a pastoral minister in Chicago, tweeted about the discrepancy between the U.S. bishops’ efforts to discriminate legally and their efforts to end racism:

“I honest to Jesus just wish the U.S. Catholic bishops cared even a tenth as much about the lives of black and brown persons as they do about making sure the Church is legally allowed to fire lgbtq+ persons and deny employees birth control.”

Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, issued a statement saying her organization was “very disappointed” with the Supreme Court’s ruling. She stated:

“That [LGBTQ church workers] will continue to be subject to arbitrary application of dogma, and have no legal recourse, is profoundly destabilizing for these employees and the communities they serve. . .This ruling will have a chilling effect on thousands of Americans working for religious organizations.”

Fr. James Martin, SJ, challenged the Catholic officials to stop firing church workers because they are LGBTQ. He commented on Facebook:

“If Catholic leaders use this ruling on ‘ministerial exceptions’ to continue targeting and firing LGBTQ employees in Catholic institutions, they may be within the law but outside of moral behavior.”

In an editorial on the ruling, the Los Angeles Times specifically called for Catholic officials to read the Court’s decision narrowly rather than using it to discriminate indiscriminately (note: the two Catholic schools involved in the case were in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles):

“The Catholic Church in particular has identified itself with the rights of workers and the quest for racial justice, and it has acknowledged that gay people are subjected to ‘unjust discrimination.’ It would be betraying its own values if it attempted to expand the ministerial exception to deprive employees of Catholic schools of their right to legal redress for discrimination.”

Supporting the Court’s decision, unsurprisingly, was the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which had filed an amicus brief in support of the Catholic schools involved in the two cases. A joint statement from the chair of its Committee for Religious Liberty, Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, and chair of its Committee on Catholic Education, Bishop Michael Barber, SJ, of Oakland, commented, in part:

“As institutions carrying out a ministry of the Church, Catholic schools have a right, recognized by the Constitution, to select people who will perform ministry. The government has no authority to second-guess those ministerial decisions. We welcome the Supreme Court’s decision, which rightly acknowledged this limit on state authority. This decision means that the Church can continue to serve her neighbors with integrity.”

Tomorrow, Bondings 2.0 will have continued reactions and commentary on the Supreme Court’s decision. If you have not already subscribed to receive daily blog posts in your inbox so that you don’t miss important issues like this Supreme Court coverage, you can do so using the “Subscribe” box at the top of the right-hand column of this page or simply click here.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, July 10, 2020

2 replies
  1. John Calhoun
    John Calhoun says:

    “As institutions carrying out a ministry of the Church, Catholic schools have a right, recognized by the Constitution, to select people who will perform ministry.” (Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski (Miami), Chair USCCB Committee for Religious Liberty). Do non-Catholic/Christians attending Catholic educational institutions consider themselves recipients of Catholic ministry when they take their non-religion courses. The clergy may consider “it all” ministry but that’s their point of view. How do modes of “performing ministry” differ among various Catholic institutions? Must the atheist, accepting a nurse performing her/his duties, accept her as a minister or could they say: “Keep this ministering” to yourself”. In the eyes of a chaplain the nurse may be “ministering” but not necessarily so for the atheist recipient or even for the nurse. Does the patient or nurse have any rights to “not” be considered instruments of or recipients of “ministry”? Why should anyone be forced to accept the Church’s “self-definition” of its activities at all? What’s “ministering” – when, where, why. how ? Who says so? Do folks have a right “not to assent to “ministering processes”? If they can refuse a chaplain, why not the institutional “ethos” named “ministry” altogether? Can they bring in their own ministers? Just asking?

  2. Michaelangelo Allocca
    Michaelangelo Allocca says:

    From a purely realpolitik perspective, I am shocked at the incredibly bad *optics* of the USCCB statement celebrating this decision. Apparently they feel such a strong need to crow about the government allowing them to fire anybody for any reason, that they don’t care how ugly it is to do a victory dance on the grave of a cancer victim.


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