Court: Church Legally Justified in Firing of Gay Church Worker in Chicago

In a ruling released last week, a federal judge has said a Catholic parish was legally justified in firing a gay church worker. The Washington Blade reported:

“In a seven-page decision, U.S. District Judge Charles Kocoras determined Tuesday the Holy Family Parish, which is under the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of Chicago, had the right to terminate Colin Collette because the worker’s position was ministerial in nature.

“‘By playing music at church services, Collette served an integral role in the celebration of mass,’ Kocoras said. ‘Collette’s musical performances furthered the mission of the church and helped convey its message to the congregants. Therefore, Collette’s duties as Musical Director fall within the ministerial exception.'”

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Colin Collette

Collette sued Holy Family and the Archdiocese of Chicago in 2015 claiming employment discrimination under federal, state, and county laws. It was hoped Collette’s case would add to the small, but growing number of legal victories for church workers who have lost their jobs over LGBT issues.

Judge Kocoras did not, however, rule on whether Collette was discriminated against by the parish; he ruled on whether the firing was protected under the so-called “ministerial exemption.”

According to the Blade, the judge’s actions preceding the ruling show he “entertained the idea Collette’s position wasn’t ministerial in nature and therefore protected under the civil rights law.” But that was not where Kocoras ended up, as he explained in the ruling:

“[A] position can be found to be ministerial if it requires the participant to undertake religious duties and functions. . .Here, Collette worked with church volunteers to choose the music that would enhance the prayer offered at mass. Choosing songs to match the weekly scripture required the group, including Collette, to make discretionary religious judgments since the Catholic Church does not have rules specifying what piece of music is to be played at each mass.'”

Collette was fired in 2014 as Holy Family’s music minister because his engagement to longtime partner and now husband, Will Nifong, became known to church officials. The firing was traumatic for the parish, where Collette had served for 17 years. Some 700 parishioners attended a town hall about it and there welcomed Collette with a standing ovation. One parishioner expressed anger and disappointment at the treatment of Collette, saying: “Everybody was welcome…That’s become a lie.

The firing is problematic not only for the parish, but for the Archdiocese as well. Archbishop Blase Cupich has said the consciences of LGBT people must be respected, and even endorsed legal protections for families headed by same-gender partners. Yet, the Archdiocese has continued to defend the firings of Collette and another gay church worker, Sandor Demkovich.

This latest ruling should not be celebrated by church officials because, while it may be legal justice, it has not advanced social justice. Archbishop Cupich could, however, freely choose to act for the common good by apologizing to Collette and taking the lead in reconciliation efforts at Holy Family.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, April 25, 2017

Griffin PromoIf you would like to learn more about the issue of LGBT church workers in Catholic institutions, consider attending 

Leslie Griffin, a professor of law, will give a plenary session talk on “Religious Liberty, Employment, & LGBT Issues” at New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois.    During one of the focus sessions, three people affected by the firings, Colleen Simon, Margie Winters, and Andrea Vettori will give personal testimony about “The Challenges of LGBT Church Workers.” For more information, visit www.Symposium2017.org.

Under Trump, Will Transgender Lives Matter for Catholic Hospitals?

With the Affordable Care Act (ACA) under siege by the new U.S. president, many people in the U.S. are worried about changes in their healthcare, especially LGBT communities for whom access to competent and affordable healthcare can sometimes be more problematic than for most people.

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Jionni Conforti

Of concern to Catholics is the unclear position that church leaders and church-affiliated providers will take towards LGBT people in this unfolding situation. A closer look into one transgender man’s experience with a Catholic hospital reveals just what is at stake in the coming months.

Bondings 2.0 reported last month about the lawsuit filed by Jionni Conforti against St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in New Jersey. You can read an initial report by clicking here. The suit alleges that the hospital refused to perform a hysterectomy which was a “medically necessary as part of [Conforti’s] gender transition.” Conforti’s lawyer, Omar Gonzalez-Pagan of Lambda Legal, told the progressive media outlet Rewire:

“‘For them to say, in writing, we’re not going to do this service, or provide the ability to have these facilities available for this service, because it has to do with your gender identity, and it has to do with the medical treatment for your gender dysphoria, really is discrimination at its core. . .And for them to use religion as an excuse for this discrimination, I think, is something that cannot be accepted.'”

Conforti said the alleged discrimination has been especially painful because St. Joseph’s was his “neighborhood hospital,” where family members have been treated and “where I feel comfortable.” For this reason, though he underwent the hysterectomy elsewhere, Conforti remains troubled:

“[He said,]’My main concern right now is that I still live in Totowa and I’ve lived here my entire life, so in the event of an emergency, the only place that an ambulance would take me is to St. Joseph’s. . .And, you know, I worry that, God forbid something happened, what would I do, how would I be treated? So it’s a constant fear.’

“In October 2016, that fear partly came true. Conforti was in a car accident in Wayne, New Jersey, and suffered minor injuries. The emergency service technicians recommended he get emergency care, but said they could only take him to the two St. Joseph’s locations nearby. If he wanted to go elsewhere, he would have to hire a private ambulance. Afraid to seek care from St. Joseph’s, Conforti instead asked his wife to drive him about 25 minutes away, to another hospital in Montclair, New Jersey.”

Sadly, Conforti’s circumstances are not unique. Many trans people cannot access competent and affordable healthcare, or may even avoid healthcare fearful of discrimination. Rewire cited data from the National Center for Transgender Equality that reveals “23 percent of trans people avoided going to the doctor because they feared discrimination; one-third of respondents had at least one negative experience with their provider, including having to educate the provider on trans people in order to receive appropriate care.”

The Affordable Care Act of 2010 helped to improve healthcare for trans communities, especiallly since Section 1557 established non-discrimination protections based on sex, a class that was interpreted by the Obama administration to include gender identity. It is unclear whether such protections would still hold if the ACA is repealed and replaced by an as yet uknown program devised by Republican legislators.  Even if the ACA is not repealed, it is uncertain whether the Trump administration will interpret the non-discrimination protections in the same way as the Obama administration did.

Even if the ACA and its non-discrimination protections remain in place, will religiously-affiliated providers be allowed to discriminate under existing or even expanded exemptions? St. Joseph’s cited the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services” to justify its refusal to provide care for Conforti, guidelines which dictate care for “one in six hospital beds nationwide,” according to Rewire.

Just two weeks after Inauguration Day, efforts to repeal the ACA are well underway. There are more questions than answers about what comes next. But church leaders and Catholic providers do not have to wait and see what happens nationally. They can decide right now to provide high-quality, lifesaving care for LGBT patients.

Catholic hospitals and health systems can choose freely to adopt non-discrimination protections inclusive of gender and sexual minorities. They can train providers to be informed about the unique health needs of LGBT patients, and to provide additional services and programs that may be required. The complexities of law, ethics, and institutional bureaucracies are real, but there is wisdom, too, in Conforti’s statement:

“If there is a procedure that is medically necessary, there should be no question whether or not they will do it. . .No one should be rejected or denied care, especially just for being who you are.'”

Nothing in church teaching restricts more inclusive policies and practices from being enacted in church-affiliated healthcare. Indeed, the Catholic identity so often cited to deny care to patients like Jionni Conforti is the very mandate for why such actions must be now taken. With LGBT communities under attack, this is a moment in history for Catholic hospitals to state decisively that transgender lives, and the lives of all LGBT people matter immensely.

And if inspiration is needed, Catholics can look to St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City which, in 1973, adopted a non-discrimination policy inclusive of sexual orientation.

To get started on an LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination policy at your Catholic parish, school, hospital, or social service agency, contact New Ways Ministry at info@newwaysministry.org or (301) 277-5674. You can also find more information on making this change here.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, February 6, 2017

 

Newly-Named Cardinal Comments on LGBT Church Worker Firings

A U.S. bishop who will be made a cardinal in late November has spoken publicly about the pattern in recent years of LGBT church workers firings.

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Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin

Archbishop Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis was interviewed by Michael O’Loughlin of America after being named last week as one of thirteen new cardinals. Asked how the church should respond to LGBT church workers, especially those employees in same-gender marriages, Tobin was skeptical that any national employment policy could be developed. He advocated dealing with church workers on a case-by-case basis:

” ‘If I have someone who is a teacher, I think that’s a little different than someone who is a [chief financial officer]. . .I would want to speak with the person about it, and ask, “Do you find any sort of dissonance within yourself teaching faithfully what the church teaches and the choices you make in your life?” ‘ “

Archbishop Tobin commented, too, on his episcopal colleagues and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which will vote on new leadership and priorities at their fall plenary in November. The archbishop said bishops in the U.S. need to communicate better and follow the pope in valuing “discernment in a synodal way,” continuing:

“[We should] develop a spirit of discernment among us, reading the signs of the times and places in the light of the faith, and being able to talk about that and asking ourselves, what is God’s will? Where is God opening a door?”

For three years, the USCCB has defied the pastoral agenda of Pope Francis with little attention to the signs of the times on LGBT rights and many other issues. But Tobin affirmed the pope, with whom he is acquainted from the 2005 Synod on the Eucharist, and said Francis is calling in Amoris Laetitia for the church to elevate “a way of thinking of what it means to follow or lead a life of discipleship today.”

Two other notable points came up in the America interview.

First, the archbishop said today’s church officials in Rome had a deeper “appreciation and gratitude” for women religious in the U.S.  Tobin had been secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life when dual interventions–one a doctrinal investigation of  the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and one an apostolic visitation of U.S. women’s religious communities–began in 2012.

Tobin defended the sisters, and he was promoted horizontally out of Rome to Indianapolis. The questions these investigations provoked, however, meant the church “understood in a more profound way, just what an important, critical role sisters play.”

Second, Tobin affirmed the need for ministry at the margins when speaking about his own religious identity. Ordained a Redemptorist priest, and later elected superior general, Tobin said the community’s mission is “always like to look on the other side of the tracks and care for people that maybe the church isn’t able to care for.” He said further:

“Our founder spoke of the most abandoned poor and that can take different form in different areas. The way I hear it, and the way I would speak of it when I was superior general, was basically we must go where the church isn’t able to go.”

By all accounts, Archbishop Tobin seems to practice the pastorally-oriented leadership so desired by Pope Francis. His recognition that the church must be present at the margins, and his affirmation of women religious, who have been present there, could indicate a more pastoral approach on LGBT issues.

That is why his comments on LGBT church workers are puzzling to me. While he affirms the need to interact with every employee in a charitable way, including a conversation, the case-by-case solution he proposes does not actually protect LGBT church workers and their families from discrimination.

When it comes to employment, such provisional solutions are almost never adequate. For every Archbishop Tobin in Indianapolis who is pastorally shepherding God’s people, there is a Bishop Tobin in Providence whose firing of a gay music director has forced many more parishioners to question their relationship to the church. . Lacking explicit non-discrimination policies and demonstrated support programs, church institutions remain dangerous workplaces when one’s livelihood depends on the bishop’s whim.

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 60 incidents since 2007 where church workers have lost their jobs over LGBT identity, same-sex marriages, or public support for equality.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 20, 2016

Transgender Catholic Legislator Appeals to Peers for LGBT Protections

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Geraldine Roman

The first transgender person elected to the Philippines’ House of Representative, who is a Catholic, has powerfully asked her peers to pass LGBT non-discrimination protections.

Geraldine Roman addressed the House last Monday for over an hour about the “Anti-Discrimination Bill on the Basis of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.” Roman filed the Bill in June, but there has been little progress towards passing it for the highly Catholic nation. She appealed to legislators in a personal way, reported Inquirer.nettelling them:

” ‘I cannot turn my back at a group of people, who have long suffered discrimination, and have long been denied adequate legal protection. How can I turn a blind eye to the suffering that I myself have experienced at some point in my life?’

” ‘We are your brothers; we are your sisters; your sons and your daughters, and nieces and nephews. We are your family. We are your friends; your schoolmates; your colleagues at work. . .We are human beings.’

” ‘We love our families. We love our country. We are proud Filipinos, who just happen to be LGBT. The question is: do we, as members of the LGBT community, share the same rights as all other citizens? Does the State grant us equal protection under our laws?’ “

The Bill, if passed, would establish non-discrimination protections for LGBT people in employment, education, and healthcare, and it would train law enforcement on LGBT issues. Sanctions would be imposed for violations which, in addition to jail time and fines, could include human rights education or community service.

Her speech also identified specific problems facing LGBT people in the Philippines. She noted that there have been only 164 hate crimes reported in the last twenty years, due largely to issues with the police. Human Rights Watch reported:

“[LGBT-specific police] initiatives are essential given that LGBT rights advocacy groups have warned that hate crimes against LGBT are on the rise and that the Philippines has recorded the highest number of murders of transgender individuals in Southeast Asia since 2008.

“[Healthcare access] is crucial because the Philippines now has the world’s fastest growing HIV epidemic driven by new HIV infections among men who have sex with men (MSMs). Her support of the bill in such a public and heartfelt manner will hopefully motivate lawmakers to take meaningful action to protect the rights of LGBT people by supporting its passage.”

Roman said she was “one voice among many” urging passage of the Bill because LGBT people “simply ask for equality. With inclusiveness and diversity, our nation has so much to gain.” Despite some positive reviews, her speech and the bill for which she advocates have faced resistance. CNN Philippines reported:

“She was glowing. She would glow even as she fought back tears later on, a few minutes upon delivering her first privilege speech before the session hall. She would glow as she parried questions from her eight or so interpellators, including Rep. Rolando Andaya, Jr. of the first district of Camarines Sur, who would repeatedly address her as ‘Congressman.’ “

Elected with 62% of the vote in her district, Roman has not only made history but is now working to advance LGBT rights. She relies upon her Catholic faith in this work, saying previously that the church had been “a source of consolation” and that “If Jesus Christ was alive today, he would not approve of discrimination. I firmly believe that.

You can watch an interview with Roman, who speaks about her own journey and her LGBT legislative aims, by clicking here or viewing it below.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

 

 

Massachusetts Bishops Offer Temperate Response to New Transgender Law

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”

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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

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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