Bishops in North Carolina and Mississippi have reacted to their state’s passage of new “license to discriminate” laws, and, in their responses, they failed to oppose discrimination against LGBT people.
Mississippi’s HB 1523
HB 1523 in Mississippi “explicitly allows the denial of services, goods, wedding products, medical treatment, housing, and employment to LGBT people,” reported Buzzfeed. Governor Phil Bryant signed the law April 5th. Ben Needham of Project One America, an LGBT group in the Deep South, deemed HB 1523 the “worst religious freedom bill to date.” State Representative Stephen Holland described it as “the most hateful bill I have seen in my career in this legislature.”
But Bishop Joseph Kopacz of Jackson offered qualified praise of the law, releasing a brief statement about HB 1523 that reads:
“The Diocese of Jackson supported and would continue to support a religious exemption on behalf of the mission of the Catholic church with regard to education and social services. We would like to continue to provide these services while remaining faithful to the teachings of the Catholic Church. The diocese had no involvement in the other portions of the bill that addressed business and government operations. The church will continue to work to protect its First Amendment right to worship, to educate and to serve in the public domain while respecting the dignity of all citizens.”
Bishop Roger Morin of Biloxi, whose retirement was announced earlier this year, has not commented on the law.
North Carolina’s HB 2
North Carolina’s HB 2 mandates public restroom use according to a person’s assigned sex at birth. The bill was the state legislature’s response to an LGBT non-discrimination ordinance approved by the City of Charlotte in February. When the bill passed the legislature, a statement posted by Catholic Voice North Carolina, a lobby for the state’s two bishops, Peter Jugis of Charlotte and Michael Burbridge of Raleigh, said in part:
“A March 23 special session of the General Assembly yielded a favorable outcome for religious liberty. Legislators revamped North Carolina’s non-discrimination law so that it could be applied consistently across the state. They also voided a Charlotte ordinance that would have opened bathrooms and locker rooms.”
Tennessee’s legislature sent a bill to Governor Bill Haslam allowing mental health professionals to refuse service based on their religious beliefs. South Carolina lawmakers are considering an anti-LGBT bills in their state, though Governor Nikki Haley has said it is not needed. A few dozen more such bills exist across the country. Despite U.S. Catholics’ overwhelming support for LGBT non-discrimination protections, most bishops have yet to resist these discriminatory laws.
Criticizing North Carolina’s law as “a permission slip for bias,” theologian Lisa Fullam wrote in Commonweal against bishops’ failure to oppose LGBT discrimination:
“The Catechism of the Catholic Church specifies that gay people ‘must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.’ (2358). Transgender people are not mentioned. Allowing LGBT people to be barred from public accommodations at will would seem to violate the Catechism’s teaching of respect for the equal dignity of all God’s children. Sadly, the Catholic bishops of North Carolina, Peter J. Jugis of Charlotte and Michael F. Burbidge of Raleigh, issued a warm thank you to North Carolina for denying the equal dignity of our LGBT brothers and sisters.”
Fullam speculated that these laws seek to “encourage North Carolinians to see gay or trans people. . .as threats to public safety,” affecting even those only perceived to identify as LGBT. Drawing a parallel between these laws targeting LGBT communities and Arizona’s SB 1070 law targeting undocumented communities, Fullam concluded that just as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops opposed SB 1070, so, too, should they vigorously oppose legislation discriminating against LGBT people.
In addition to the harm such laws cause to LGBT communities, these laws actually weaken religious liberty despite claims that they are enacted to strengthen religious rights. Writing in Commonweal, Matthew Stillman said supporters of such bills want to opt out from all situations where they would have to treat LGBT “in minimally considerate and decent ways.” He continued:
“They want the state to sanction their own discrimination, but then are horrified when others freely choose to follow a different, better path. They want their freedom, but despise the free choices of others. . .Freedom means getting their way, all the time. The future of religious liberty in this country will be a perilous one indeed if it becomes associated with such nonsense.”
Nonsense, indeed. Catholic bishops would do well to listen to the overwhelming majority of Catholics in the U.S. who oppose any legislation which infringes on the rights of LGBT people and undermines religious liberty. Then, learning from the people of God’s wisdom, bishops in North Carolina and Mississippi should correct their mistakes and other bishops should speak out for LGBT human rights.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry