Massachusetts Bishops Offer Temperate Response to New Transgender Law

July 14, 2016

mcc-logoCatholic bishops in Massachusetts have offered a tempered, though not perfect, response to newly passed anti-discrimination law aimed at protecting transgender people. Their statement improves upon other church leaders’ responses to this contentious human rights issue in other U.S. states.

Republican Governor Charlie Baker signed the bill in law last Friday. Building on employment protections passed in 2011, the new law provides non-discrimination protections based on gender identity for all public accommodations in the state. The Massachusetts Catholic Conference, representing the state’s bishops, released a statement which said, in part:

“While the purpose and intent of the legislation is to provide protection and access to public accommodations for transgender individuals in the Commonwealth, the issue of its implementation will require both careful oversight and respect for all individuals using such public accommodations. . .

“The understanding of and respect for transgender persons has only recently commanded widespread attention. The complex challenge of crafting legislative protections for some in our community while meeting the needs of the wider population will require sensitive application of the legislation just passed.”

The Conference statement suggested debate will continue, citing contested gender and sexuality issues addressed by Pope Francis in his apostolic exhortation, Amoris LaetitiaBut the Conference urged civility, concluding:

“Debate about this legislation and its implementation will undoubtedly continue in some form. It will inevitably touch on themes not easily captured by law. . .We urge respect in this discussion for all those whose rights require protection. In our parishes, schools and other institutions, the Church will respect the civil law while upholding the principles of our faith and our religious freedom.”

Public accommodation protections for transgender people have been hotly debated in the U.S., with more than 100 pieces of anti-LGBT legislation having been debated in state legislatures this year. Debates about these bills, and the broader issue of transgender public accommodations, have very often become rancorous.

The country’s Catholic bishops, for the most part, have responded poorly. North Carolina’s bishops welcomed that state’s HB 2 law which mandates restroom use according to assigned sex at birth, though one bishop later qualified his support. Bishop Joseph Kopacz of Jackson offered qualified praise for Mississippi’s HB 1523 law, a law which allowed for some discrimination.  It was described by one state legislator as “the most hateful bill I have seen in my career in this legislature.” Bishops in Nebraska actively opposed newly-approved policies to protect transgender student-athletes in the state’s schools. And at least two dioceses criticized President Barack Obama’s directive mandating public school students be able to use restrooms and locker rooms matching their gender identity. It is worth noting, too, that Vatican official Cardinal Robert Sarah, while addressing the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, referred to transgender rights as “demonic.”

Respecting transgender people should be a “fairly simple thing to do,” to quote Jesuit Fr. James Martin, but unfortunately this has been too difficult for many church leaders. Issues around gender identity and expression, civil law, and true religious liberty can be very complicated, as Bondings 2.0 has noted at least twice (here and here).

The church’s response should be respectful, a simple thing to do, but should not rely upon simple answers where nuance is required. The Massachusetts’ bishops response in this case should have highlighted more strongly Catholic teaching about opposing discrimination, but even with that deficiency, its tempered tone and willingness to dialogue is a step forward.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Fr. James Martin: Respecting Transgender People “Fairly Simple Thing to Do”

May 19, 2016
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Jesuit Fr. James Martin again affirmed LGBT inclusion, saying transgender people using restrooms according to their gender identity “seems a fairly simple thing to do.” Meanwhile, U.S. bishops intensified their criticism of expanding transgender equality.

In an interview with the National Catholic Reporter, Martin was asked about the federal government’s new directive mandating transgender students be allowed to use gender-segregated facilities, like restrooms and locker rooms, according to their gender identity. Martin responded:

“I don’t know a whole lot about that issue, but I would say that I don’t understand the problem with letting transgender people use bathrooms that they feel comfortable in. Personally, I think it’s overblown and that people’s responses are really strange. I don’t know that much about transgender people but that’s all the more reason for us to try and treat them with dignity.

“I thought the comment from Attorney General Lynch was beautiful, that we are with you, we’re going to try to help you. Just as the church needs to treat gay and lesbians with ‘respect, compassion and sensitivity,’ which is in the catechism, it should be the same with transgender people. And letting them use the bathroom seems a fairly simple thing to do.”

Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo and Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha, representing the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committees on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, and on Catholic Education, called the federal directive “deeply disturbing” in a statement. They said the directive failed to balance “legitimate concerns about privacy and security” and “short-circuits” ongoing conversations about gender. Malone and Lucas quoted Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia which says youth must “accept their own body as it was created.”

Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, pushed back against the bishops’ statement and their use of Pope Francis to justify discrimination:

“We believe, as do many Catholics, that our transgender kin reflect the immensity and diversity of God’s creativity. They challenge us to humbly re-examine traditional beliefs about sex, gender, identity, and human relationships, and to acknowledge the limitations of our current understanding in these areas. We urge the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to engage in dialogue with transgender youth and adults, as well as their families, so they can better understand the pastoral and practical needs of these communities.”

Fr. Martin also commented on Pope Francis’ impact on LGBT issues  generally. Martin said it is “hard to overstate the impact” that Francis’ papacy has had in welcoming LGBT people. But the Jesuit priest criticized the institutional church for not providing more outreach to LGBT people, and offered three points to enhance pastoral care and improve ecclesial inclusion:

“First, by listening to their experience. Usually LGBT people are preached at instead of listened to. Second, by going out [of] their way to make them feel welcome. Third, by including them in leadership positions as anybody else would be, as Eucharistic ministers and lectors and things like that. But the first thing is listening to them. What is their experience?”

What is readily apparent from these Catholic responses to the federal directive protecting transgender students in public schools is who has listened to and come to know LGBT people–and who has not. Too many bishops have not asked themselves nor informed their ministry with the question proposed by Martin, “What are the experiences of LGBT people?” Pope Francis’ own deficiencies on matters of gender and sexuality, readily apparent in Amoris Laetitia, seem to stem from a failure to ask this question more publicly and proactively.

LGBT non-discrimination protections, for students and for everyone else, can be readily defended using Catholic teaching. But personal stories and relationships are perhaps more powerful sources for our theology and our advocacy today. So before another top Vatican official condemns trans identities as “demonic” or more U.S. bishops keep opposing LGBT civil rights, perhaps a pause for listening and for dialogue would be an appropriate next step. After that, respecting LGBT people should easily become a “fairly simple thing to do.”

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Malawi Bishops’ Comments Fail to Defend Marginalized LGBT People

January 26, 2016
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President Peter Mutharika, left, with Archbishop Thomas Msusa

As Malawi debates whether to repeal its laws which criminalize homosexuality, the nation’s Catholic bishops are lobbying heavily for the keeping such laws on the books.

Most recently, the Catholic bishops conference of the nation, called the Episcopal Conference of Malawi (ECM), sought an audience with U.S. Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT People, Randy Berry, who visited the country this month. ECM Chair Archbishop Thomas Msusa of Blantyre explained why the bishops wanted such a meeting, as reported by Nyasa Times:

“Any discussion affecting the social and moral fibre of Malawi should at its best be as inclusive and accommodative as possible. Our teaching and a majority of our faithful have spoken clearly against the bullying of our international partners on issues of constitutional change to accommodate homosexuality in our laws.”

But, while Berry met with government offices and civic organizations, he did not meet religious leaders who wanted to defend homosexuality’s criminalization or believed international aid was tied to LGBT laws. Berry said assertions that U.S. aid is conditioned upon LGBT rights are “completely false,” but that these human rights could not be separated from broader concerns about governance in Malawi, reported Nysasa Times.

Five ECM bishops also brought up the idea of alleged international pressures about homosexuality in their mid-January meeting with President Peter Mutharika. They told him to “resist pressure” on LGBT human rights because these are “alien to most Malawians” and are “being championed by foreigners,” said Archbishop Msusa. He continued, according to All Africa:

” ‘As the Catholic Church, we say “no” to supporting these gay activities and we will follow strictly our church doctrine.’ “

President Mutharika recently said LGBTI people’s rights “should be protected,” but believes ultimately the populace should decide on whether to repeal Malawi’s anti-homosexuality law.

Malawi’s church leaders have spoken publicly against homosexuality from the pulpit, too. Bishop Mathews Mtumbuka of Karonga told a Catholic women’s gathering that gay people are “sinners who need to repent.” Bishop Montfort Sitima of Mangochi applauded a Catholic musician for cancelling his concert when questionable reports surfaced about two men kissing in the audience.

Being gay in Malawi is illegal, and a conviction could lead to up to fourteen years hard labor for men and up to five years imprisonment for women.  The government dropped charges in December against two men, Cuthert Kulemeka and Kelvin Gonani, after their arrests for being gay drew widespread criticism.

Justice Minister Samuel Tembenu has issued a moratorium on enforcement of the anti-gay law,until further notice, though anti-LGBT politicians are challenging the legality of this moratorium. Homophobia is still quite prevalent in the nation’s politics. A spokesperson for minority party, People’s Part, said earlier this month that lesbian and gay people should be killed rather than jailed

Malawi’s bishops are promoting misinformation when they claim first that homosexuality is “alien” to Malawians and second that foreign aid is being used to pressure donor nations to adopt LGBT rights. Misinformation is problematic, but doubly so when used to endorse, implicitly as well as explicitly, anti-LGBT prejudices that have and can lead to discrimination, imprisonment, and violence.

Though Catholics are only 20% of the population, Malawi’s bishops possess tremendous authority in the country due to their critical role in the nation’s transition to democracy in the early 1990’s. Their voices weigh heavily in this debate about repealing the criminalization laws which, it should be noted, are not supported by church teaching.

The bishops should be defending the human rights of all people, even if disagreements about sexual ethics exist, instead of providing cover for those politicians and public figures whose homophobia and transphobia has and will have dangerous consequences. But as it stands, the bishops in political and ecclesial arenas alike are failing to defend and may even be causing harm to marginalized LGBT communities in Malawi.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Catholic School Discriminated Against Gay Employee, Says Judge

December 18, 2015
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Matthew Barrett, right, and his husband, Ed Suplee

In a landmark decision, a Massachusetts court ruled that a Catholic school discriminated against a gay employee when it rescinded his employment contract because of his same-sex marriage.

In 2013, Matthew Barrett had been offered employment as the food services director at Fontbonne Academy in Milton, Massachusetts. But the job offer was taken back after Barrett listed his husband, Ed Suplee, as his emergency contact.

Judge Douglas H. Wilkins of Norfolk Superior Court said the school’s action violated Massachusetts’s non-discrimination protections and wrote, in a decision reported by The Boston Globe:

“Fontbonne’s discrimination ‘because of’ Barrett’s same-sex marriage is undisputed and, as shown above, amounts to discriminatory intent as a matter of law. . .It is clear that, because he is male, he suffered gender discrimination when he was denied employment for marrying a person whom a female could have married without suffering the same consequences.”

Ben Klein of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, which represented Barrett, said “you can’t have equality if you can get married on Saturday and fired on Monday.” This ruling is the first of its kind barring anti-gay discrimination at religious institution, said Klein.

Fontbonne Academy had sought a religious exemption in the case, but Judge Wilkins denied such claims. They would apply only if the school limited “membership, enrollment, or participation” to Catholics, but Fontbonne allows students of all or no faith, and it requires only administrators and theology faculty be Catholic. The Globe further explained:

“Wilkins also ruled that hiring Barrett as a food services director would not interfere with the school’s ability to promote the message of the Catholic church because the job does not have any teaching or administrative responsibilities.”

Barrett now awaits a hearing to determine damages, which would include lost wages and other damages, according to his lawyer.

This decision means justice for Matthew Barrett. It sets a legal precedent that Massachusetts religious institutions cannot wantonly discriminate against LGBT employees by using religious exemption definitions broadly. What it does not rectify are the thirteen public incidents in 2015 where LGBT and Ally church workers lost their jobs nor the more than 60 which have occurred since 2008.  Because this was a state court decision, and it may not be applicable to similar situations in other states.

Fontbonne Academy is in the Archdiocese of Boston, which is headed by Cardinal Sean O’Malley. He is a close adviser to Pope Francis and the only American prelate to speak out against the firing of LGBT church workers, telling Bondings 2.0 that it is a situation “needs to be rectified” in 2014. O’Malley should use the occasion of this ruling to implement LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination policies at all archdiocesan schools, parishes, and agencies. Policies could be modeled on those approved by Germany’s bishops earlier this year, or the policy adopted by St. Mary’s Academy in Portland, Oregon. Such a move would help make real the cardinal’s desire to ending these firings and be a model for others in the U.S. Church to follow.

You can take action to stop the firings! Consider getting an LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination policy passed at your Catholic parish, school, hospital, or social service agency. You can find more information on making this change here.

For Bondings 2.0‘s full coverage of this story, and other LGBT-related church worker disputes, click the ‘Employment Issues‘ category to the right or here. You can click here to find a full listing of the more than 50 incidents since 2008 where church workers have lost their jobs over LGBT identity, same-sex marriages, or public support for equality.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Having Their Marriage Doctrine–and Changing It, Too

August 24, 2014

Christine Hernandez

The Catholic hierarchy’s position on marriage is clear to all: one man, one woman, for life. Defending this belief has caused bishops to spend millions of dollars in a decade-long attempt to stop marriage equality’s spread. Public discourse around same-gender couples attaining marriage rights has been framed in near-apocalyptic language by some bishops, and much pastoral harm has been caused as a result.

Yet, a court case in Alabama reveals just what it might take for Catholic officials to “redefine” marriage, as they often claim LGBT advocates are trying to do.

St. Pius X Catholic School in Mobile has had three lawsuits filed against it by parents claiming the school failed to protect their children from severe bullying, one of which comes from the lesbian mother of a child known in court documents as “A.S.” AL.com reports on the strange development:

“In court, lawyers for a Catholic school in Mobile seemed to endorse the view that a lesbian partner is an equal parent to the birth mother…Lawyers for the school sought permission to take sworn testimony from Christine Hernandez, the partner of the student’s mother who has helped raise the child.”

St. Pius X’s lawyers claim Hernandez has represented herself as the parent of A.S. in the past, including in official capacities where parental consent was needed. The child’s mother sought to block Hernandez from being forced to give testimony “on the grounds that state law bans recognition of same-sex marriage,” and Mobile Country Circuit Judge Sarah Stewart agreed saying Hernandez and A.S. are “legal strangers.”

A further twist is that Hernandez is co-counsel, with David Kennedy, in the bullying lawsuits, and she would need to be removed from this case and potentially the two other ones if forced to testify. Hernandez is also involved in an adoption lawsuit which claims the same same-sex marriage ban being used to prevent her from testifying is unconstitutional. The newspaper article explained:

“In an interview, Kennedy said that notwithstanding his view of the law, it remains on the books until a court decides otherwise.

” ‘In Alabama, the law of the land is still that a child can have one mother and one father but certainly not two mothers,’ he said.

“Even without the same-sex marriage issues, Kennedy argued, Hernandez still should not be made to testify. He pointed to legal precedent setting a high hurdle for compelling lawyers to testify as fact witnesses in cases involving their clients.”

Kennedy added that even if the same-sex marriage ban were deemed unconstitutional, Hernandez could not be considered a legal parent in the bullying lawsuit without marriage or adoption paperwork on file.

For her part, Hernandez released a short statement on the issues involved, saying:

” ‘This case is not about me. This case along with the other three that we have filed to date is about the children…The children that cried out for help and were ignored.’ “

Does this mean that the possibility of losing a legal case, and the resulting financial payout, can make Catholic officials change their definition of marriage?  It certainly seems they are willing to so for such circumstances.

This is not the first incident where Catholic leaders have sought to maintain their doctrine, while simultaneously changing it when advantageous for them. In 2013, lawyers for a Colorado hospital claimed fetuses were not, in fact, unborn children and did not possess legal rights.  The hospital was being sued for the deaths of two seven-month old fetuses, and the lawyers for the hospital defended the institution by saying fetuses were not people–a position in direct contradiction with the Catholic hierarchy’s consistent stance against abortion on the grounds that fetuses are indeed unborn children.  Perhaps there are more cases like this, when Catholic doctrines once declared infallible and immutable shift for legal and/or financial reasons?

If Catholic leaders want to claim moral positions in society then, at the very least, they must at least be willing to follow them. It adds insult to injury when bishops who ignored pleas from LGBT people and their families to stop the harm being done by opposing equal rights suddenly change those very beliefs just to win lawsuits. They cannot claim a principled position when it is so readily changed for advantage.

This case in Alabama is a prime example of how flawed and fragmented thinking on LGBT issues is, whether in the court system or in the church’s theology. I hope our bishops will one day welcome each person and every family for who and what they are, as created by God. We ask the simple question: would it not be better for every Catholic before the law and before God to stand on the side of justice and equality for all?

And when that day comes, I hope the church’s leaders’ shift in thinking will come as a result of love, not lawsuits.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Catholic Hierarchy Is a Shining Light in Dark Moment for LGBT Rights in India

December 16, 2013

Cardinal Oswald Gracias

India’s Supreme Court reinstated a law that bans homosexuality as a “crime against nature” earlier this week, intensifying divisions between LGBT advocates and the religious communities they blame for this development. Catholic leaders have varied in responding to the Court’s decision, but there are hopeful signs as at least one bishop spoke out against the law.

Outlawing homosexuality in India dates to British colonial rule more than a century ago. Recent legal debates began after a New Delhi court overturned the law in 2009. Anti-LGBT organizations, including faith-based ones, have sought to re-criminalize homosexuality since then. The Supreme Court’s ruling now says it is up to the nation’s legislators to repeal the law if that is what is desired.

The Times of India reports that religious groups have welcomed the ruling, with leaders using extremely homophobic language and advocating “ex-gay therapy” in their statements. Relative to these, Catholic leaders’ remarks have seemed muted and even positive. Archbishop Anil J T Couto of Delhi merely reaffirmed the hierarchy’s position on marriage equality and a spokesperson stated the archdiocese opposed any law that would criminalize homosexuality. Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai is quoted by UCANews.com as saying:

“[T]he Catholic Church has never been opposed to the decriminalisation of homosexuality, because we have never considered gay people criminals. As Christians, we express our full respect for homosexuals. The Catholic Church is opposed to the legalisation of gay marriage, but teaches that homosexuals have the same dignity of every human being and condemns all forms of unjust discrimination, harassment or abuse.”

Two interesting notes in this story. First, in addition to heading up the Mumbai Archdiocese and India’s bishops’ conference, Gracias is also a member of the eight member Council of Cardinals formed to advise Pope Francis. The pope has been noted for his pastoral tone when speaking about LGBT people and his emphasis away from social issues.

Second, India’s Christians are a minority struggling for recognition of their own rights. In the same week that homosexuality was criminalized, police injured Catholic demonstrators, including ten nuns, and arrested Archbishop Couto. Relations between the government and the Catholic Church are contentious, as UCANews.com reports. Defending all minority rights, including LGBT equality aside from marriage, is seemingly a position with which leading Catholic voices seem comfortable.

With elections about to occur in the coming week, and conservative nationalist politicians gaining popularity, it seems unlikely India’s government will act to decriminalize homosexuality. That said, the Catholic Church in India now has a concrete opportunity to act upon oft-stated teachings against LGBT discrimination and continue to speak out and work against this law.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


Justice Antonin Scalia Misusing Catholic Faith to Promote Anti-Gay Bias

October 13, 2013

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia

Just weeks ago, Pope Francis shook up the Catholic Church with a wide-ranging and welcome interview that included positive words about gay and lesbian people. Now, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is making waves in an interview with New York Magazine where he speaks about his Catholic faith and homosexuality.

Justice Scalia is normally an outspoken Catholic, but he offered little when asked about Pope Francis. The interviewer pressed him on the issue of homosexuality, asking (New York Magazine’s questions are in bold):

“I was wondering what kind of personal exposure you might have had to this sea change [of LGBT rights].

“I have friends that I know, or very much suspect, are homosexual. Everybody does.

“Have any of them come out to you?

“No. No. Not that I know of.”

He is asked in the interview whether his views on homosexuality have “softened” given the pope’s new welcome of gay and lesbian people, but Scalia is unable to understand how they could soften because in his mind the issue is set Catholic doctrine. The interviewer asks how these personal views affect his role on the Supreme Court, and Scalia answers:

“I still think it’s Catholic teaching that [homosexuality is] wrong. Okay? But I don’t hate the people that engage in it. In my legal opinions, all I’ve said is that I don’t think the Constitution requires the people to adopt one view or the other…

“Maybe the world is spinning toward a wider acceptance of homosexual rights, and here’s Scalia, standing athwart it. At least standing athwart it as a constitutional entitlement. But I have never been custodian of my legacy. When I’m dead and gone, I’ll either be sublimely happy or terribly unhappy.”

He pivots from here into a lengthy discussion of heaven and hell, the Devil, and atheism, all of which you can find here.

Yet, as a justice on the US’ top court and a prominent Catholic, Scalia’s record on LGBT issues is less “standing athwart” on legal grounds and more a clearly defined legacy of anti-gay bias rooted in his understanding of the Catholic faith.

Right Wing Watch offers a rundown of Scalia’s harshest moments against the LGBT community, as when he previously compared homosexuality to murder and cruelty against animals or when he wrote a scathing opinion in Lawrence v. Texas that would justify discrimination against gay people. Then there is the unusual step the justice took in reading aloud from the bench his blistering dissent when the Supreme Court struck down DOMA this past June.

It appears Pope Francis’ effect on Justice Scalia is minimal given the New York Magazine interview, and it is doubtful the justice would act like other Catholics on the court in endorsing the rights of all people regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. It is also clear in his language that Scalia continues to view homosexuality in terms of sexual acts, instead of as an integral part of a person’s identity. It is telling that someone as well-connected as the justice claims to know no gay people personally, and does little to show compassion, sensitivity, or respect for them as the Church asks of him.

With LGBT rights expanding in the US and Pope Francis preaching words of welcome, the moment is prime for the justice to reconsider how he speaks about and interacts with gay people. Perhaps acknowledging those he knows who are LGBT identified is a start. Perhaps he could consider aspects of his Catholic faith, like the dignity of each person and the common good pf all, when it comes to homosexuality. Perhaps he could simply start by echoing Pope Francis’ words in interviews and say, “Who am I to judge?

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry