Two leaders for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) have written a supportive letter to Republican legislators who are sponsoring a bill that would restrict transgender athletes’ participation in sports.
Bishops Robert Barron of Winona-Rochester, as chair of the Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life, and Youth, and Thomas Daly of Spokane, as chair of the Committee on Catholic Education, addressed their letter to Alabama’s Senator Tommy Tuberville and Florida’s Representative Greg Steube.
The legislation the two lawmakers have introduced, known as the Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act of 2023, would institute a federal ban prohibiting transgender women and girls from participating on female sports teams. The bill would amend Title IX, aimed at ending gender discrimination in education, to identify sex as “based solely on a person’s reproductive biology and genetics at birth.” The Biden administration has interpreted Title IX’s non-discrimination protections to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes.
In their letter, Barron and Daly argue their position is consistent with seeking to end gender discrimination, though with the understanding that a person’s gender is exclusively the sex assigned at birth. The issue, the bishops write, “has particular relevance in athletics” because, they allege, the participation of trans women and girls is “unfair” and “unsafe.” To this point, they argue that men “possess distinct physical advantages” in sports, an idea which has been challenged as true..
Furthermore, Barron and Daly target trans youth in particular, identified by the bishops as “persons experiencing gender identity discordance.” The bishops write:
“In response to young people who experience gender identity discordance, their right to participate in, or try-out for, student athletics on the same terms as their peers should be assured, in co-educational activities, or where the sexes are separated, in accord with their biological sex. Harassment or unjust discrimination is unequivocally wrong. Conversely, a loving response which affirms the value of all persons as fellow human beings helps those who experience gender identity discordance to attain peace with their mind and body, rather than facilitating drastic ‘transitions’ in pursuit of an identity fully independent of their physical body.”
The bishops commend similar laws passed in eighteen states already, and encourage more legislators to become sponsors of the federal legislation. Dozens of Republican lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate have already signed on as sponsors, though, as happened in the two previous congresses when similar legislation was introduced, it will inevitably fail due to Democrats’ opposition.
In 2020, two USCCB leaders—Bishop David Konderla of Tulsa and Bishop Michael Barber of Oakland—endorsed similar legislation that would have ended federal Title IX education funding if trans women and girls were allowed on female sports teams. They used almost the exact same language, at one point writing:
“Youth who experience gender identity discordance should be assured the right to participate in, or try-out for, student athletics on the same terms as any of their peers, in co-educational activities or, where sexes are separated, in accord with their given sex. Harassment or unjust discrimination against them in this regard is unequivocally immoral. Conversely, a loving response which affirms the value of persons as fellow human beings helps them to develop a genuine peace with their mind and body, rather than facilitating drastic ‘transitions’ in pursuit of an identity fully independent of their physical body.”
Recently, Barron joined three other chairs of USCCB committees in a letter to all U.S. senators asking them to reject a reconsideration of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which would add non-discrimination protections based on gender to the U.S. Constitution. Part of the bishops’ objections were that the ERA could expand protections for LGBTQ+ people, and imperil federal funding to Catholic organizations who wish to discriminate at will.
In addition, the USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine recently issued a document seeking to stop Catholic institutions from providing transgender healthcare.
Transgender and nonbinary youth are a vulnerable community, often struggling with mental health issues at much higher rates than their peers due to society’s mistreatment of them. Indeed, the Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act is more appropriately named, as Representative Pramila Jayapal, the parent of a trans child, has suggested: the Stigmatizing Vulnerable Children Act.
This legislation, even if it never passes, already does harm by broadcasting negative attitudes toward vulnerable young people. Support from the two USCCB leaders exacerbates this harm. Bishops Barron and Daly should be focusing on pastoral care for trans and nonbinary youth as Pope Francis and other bishops are modeling.
—Robert Shine (he/him), New Ways Ministry, March 10, 2023