A Catholic cemetery refused a same-gender couple’s headstone design because officials say its symbols conflict with Catholic teaching.
Greg Bourke and Michael De Leon, a married couple, had purchased a joint burial plot at St. Michael Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky. Last October, they also submitted a headstone design after consulting an Archdiocese of Louisville employee, reported The Courier-Journal.
The design includes the U.S. Supreme Court building, signifying Bourke’s and De Leon’s roles as plaintiffs in the historic Obergefell v. Hodges decision which legalized marriage equality in the U.S.. It also includes interlocked wedding rings. The couple thought nothing of their burial plans after this because, Bourke explained, they considered the matter innocuous “like picking out countertops.”
On March 30 the couple received an unexpected letter from the executive director of Catholic Cemeteries for the Archdiocese of Louisville, Javier Fajardo saying that their design had been reviewed by the “proper Church authority.” The letter said the Archdiocese “cannot approve the depiction of the Supreme Court building and the use of wedding rings” because they allegedly conflict with church teaching. The letter did make clear the couple could retain the remaining design and affirmed their ability to be buried together under a shared headstone.
Speaking at a press conference this week, Bourke said the couple believe they have been “dealt with unfairly” because their design is quite modest in comparison to existing headstone engravings. Commenting on an engraving featuring the spires of Churchill Downs, Bourke said according to The Huffington Post:
” ‘In my mind, it’s outrageous that the church would think it’s OK to have an icon on a memorial of this palace for gambling, and yet they would find an image of the Supreme Court — which is an icon of American democracy — is somehow inconsistent with church teachings.’ “
Bourke suggested the Archdiocese’s action was “deliberate retaliation against my family,” inconsistent with Pope Francis’ desires for the church, and asked: “Is that what Jesus would do?”
Catholics for Fairness, which campaigns for LGBT equality in Kentucky from a faith perspectie, joined Bourke and De Leon at the press conference. Chris Hartman, executive director of the Fairness Campaign, Kentucky’s LGBT civil rights organization, who also attended, said the couple “might have a more receptive audience with the Vatican than with the Archdiocese.” He said further, as reported by 89.3 WFPL:
“They’re simply looking for the same dignity that everyone else has in death; to have their final wishes honored and the Catholic Church, specifically the Archdiocese of Louisville and Archbishop Kurtz, are denying them that yet again. . .They’ve faced repeated indignities here in the Archdiocese, and it’s really time [the Archdiocese] listened up and stopped.”
Lisbeth Melendez Rivera of the Human Rights Campaign called headstones “sacred and personal statements about our lives, faith, accomplishments” and continued:
“There is so much room in Pope Francis’ call for mercy and acceptance and in a diverse Catholic community that values its LGBTQ brothers and sisters grace and generosity – instead of the narrow and hurtful decision by the Archdiocese. These two good men of faith deserve better.”
Greg Bourke and Michael De Leon, chosen as the 2015 Persons of the Year by the National Catholic Reporter, deserve much better. Beyond seeking marriage rights, the couple remain involved in both LGBT advocacy and in the life of their parish of 28 years. Earlier this year, Bourke and De Leon helped organize the fifth annual Pilgrimage of Mercy which called upon Catholics to support LGBT non-discrimination protections.
As a result of their past efforts, their burial plans are not the couple’s first conflict with Archbishop Joseph Kurtz and the Louisville archdiocese. In 2012, Bourke was forced to resign as a Boy Scout leader because of his sexual identity, and even after the Boy Scouts of America reversed their ban on LGBT leaders, Archbishop Kurtz barred Bourke from the Scouts permanently.
Archbishop Kurtz told the National Catholic Reporter that Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia would affect “every aspect of church ministry.” This incident is a prime opportunity to re-imagine what this ministry of burying the dead, a corporal work of mercy, means for the church today. Will church ministers afford LGBT people equal burial plans? Will church officials respect LGBT people’s consciences and the relationships to which they may have committed themselves in life? Will the violence of Communion denials at a parent’s or partner’s funeral be replaced with enhanced grief care that is intentionally inclusive for families with LGBT members?
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry