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.'”
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
If 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.
As yesterday’s post explained, Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, has prompted a lively debate about his central claim that traditional Christians should withdraw from Western cultures to escape liberalizing attitudes, especially on LGBT rights.
In yesterday’s post, we presented theologian Katie Grimes’ initial response to Dreher. Grounding her response in the present realities of LGBT people, Grimes also committed herself to be in solidarity with LGBT-negative Christians “should they become an endangered minority.”
Today, we feature writer Kaya Oakes’ response to Dreher in ReligionDispatches. She envisions a future in which divisions have not intensified, but are diminished by a growing movement towards authentic community.
Identifying herself as a feminist Catholic who appreciates both Benedictine life and who supports marriage equality, Oakes said she is not likely Dreher’s audience, as he “is not particularly interested in liberal Christian voices; he rarely mentions them without some sort of disdain.” Nonetheless, she asked:
“[I] s there finally room for a dialogue between people on different ends of the Christian spectrum?… Could the Benedict Option be an opportunity for us [Christians] to do this [reflecting on Christian tradition] together?
Oakes answered her own question with a “likely not” because Dreher depicts a religious landscape in the United States where traditional Christians, defined largely by their opposition to LGBT rights, are at war with mainstream society. She noted his comment in Christianity Today that society “has no intention of living in postwar peace.” And she points out that in The American Conservative Dreher predicts that the election of President Donald Trump may postpone the coming persecution, which he said looks like “the police looking for dissident orthodox Christians hiding out from state persecution.”
This alleged persecution is closely tied to the legalization of marriage equality and expansion of LGBT non-discrimination protections, which are increasingly acceptable to Americans. Dreher’s main concern, said Oakes, is to strengthen Christian opponents’ resistance, not to reach out and find a way forward that is different than the persecution he envisions. Importantly, Oakes acknowledged that in progressive Christian circles there have been self-analyses and inward movements as well since the U.S. election last fall. About the dangers of both vacuums, she wrote:
“Choirs that only listen to themselves eventually dissolve into dissonance, not harmony. That goes both ways for Christians right now. Neither side knows what’s next. Nobody knows what’s next. We can only grope our way from one moment to another, but neither an idealized past Christian nor a narrative that envisions a persecuted Christian future are going to create real and lasting communities.”
Oakes pointed out alternatives to the Benedict Option which are premised on inclusion rather than exclusion. K.A. Ellis of International Christian Response, an organization which aids persecuted Christians around the globe, argued directly against the idea that Christianity is under attack, saying, “many historically marginalized communities wounded by false Christianity would even say that Christianity is discovering its place for the first time.” This also includes a model of hospitality faithful to the Benedictine tradition, but in a way which builds up unity. Oakes wrote:
“As a female religious leader, [Sr. Joan] Chittister’s interpretation of the Rule of St. Benedict offers some interesting contrast to Dreher’s. On the Benedictine charism of hospitality, Chittister writes that ‘Hospitality is the way we come out of ourselves. It is the first step toward dismantling the barriers of the world. Hospitality is the way we turn around a prejudiced world, one heart at a time.’
“In fact, the Rule of Benedict itself says in Chapter 53, ‘On the Reception of Guests,’ that monastic communities should ‘let all guests who arrive be received like Christ.’ Dreher’s idealistic notion of Christian community life is indeed appealing, but it neglects to understand that the guests arriving right now most in need of welcome are mostly not Christians. Nor does Dreher seem to write about progressive Christian communities that are, in fact, living out their own version of the Benedict Option, although their ideas about community are perhaps more open to female leadership of [sic] LGBTQ members.” [Ed. note: Perhaps “of” was meant to be “and”?]
Oakes’ contribution to The Benedict Option conversation is her clear articulation that the path forward is not by way of sharpened divisions premised on the false idea that there are orthodox Christians and everyone else. The future belongs to communities that can hold differences in balance. Or, in her words, “Only those who are really willing and able to welcome the stranger are going to be able to do that. If Dreher is among them, that remains to be seen.”
At the very least, Dreher’s contention about LGBT rights in The Benedict Option seems overblown, even by those who are tepid about equality. Reviewing the book for Commonweal, Paul Baumann admitted he does not clearly support marriage equality or trans equality, but that even he wishes Dreher “would turn down the sky-is-falling rhetoric. If the sky is indeed falling, it won’t help to keep shouting about it.”
And Baumann recognizes that Dreher’s concerns about sexual morality seem out of proportion in comparison to other forces in the world:
“No one should doubt the sincerity of Dreher or those Christians who think the new sexual dispensation is a terrible mistake and a dire threat to human dignity. But Dreher surely knows there are worse threats to human dignity and Christian integrity. . . It seems to me that these are all plausible, even compelling, reasons to separate oneself from American society, and try to carve out a place to live faithful Gospel lives. Does same-sex marriage pose a comparable risk? The LGBTQ phenomenon presents difficult moral and even thorny theological questions, but it hardly constitutes an existential threat to humanity, the nation, or the church. It is not the atom bomb. It’s not the Dark Ages.”
With Dreher’s book only being released this week, the debate over how LGBT rights, U.S. society, and Christians relate to one another will only grow. But for now, what do you think of “The Benedict Option”? Leave your thoughts in the “Comments” section below.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, March 22, 2017
New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, is scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. Plenary speakers: Lisa Fullam, Leslie Griffin, Rev. Bryan Massingale, Frank Mugisha. Prayer leaders: Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Bishop John Stowe, OFM, Conv. Pre-Symposium Retreat Leader: Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS. For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.
I read an interesting comment the other day on a blog dedicated to “the pursuit of LGBT equality and gun sanity.” The blog, uniquely titled The Slowly Boiled Frog, is written by David Cary Hart, a gay man who was the victim of gun violence.
Hart’s post focused on the question of religious liberty. At the conclusion of the post, Hart comments on a recent essay by Ryan T. Anderson, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. Anderson regularly writes on marriage, bioethics, religious liberty and political philosophy. In responding to Anderson’s latest essay, Hart stated:
“Anderson insists that everyone is created heterosexual and cisgender. Anderson has an Ivy League education and a PhD from Notre Dame and I think that he is gay. Yet he finds the need to assert that sexual orientation and gender identity are acquired traits, presumably to suggest that they can be altered. This, in turn, justifies discrimination. Anderson’s only concern in life seems to be LGBT discrimination in one form or another because Anderson lives in a zero-sum universe. Every measure of equality for LGBT people is somehow a deduction from his Catholic religion. In other words, faith conquers intellect and common sense.”
First, a disclaimer: to my knowledge, Anderson has not made any public statement about his sexual orientation, so I don’t think that Hart’s assessment is legitimate in this regard. However, I find his analysis of Anderson’s argument very insightful.
Hart points out a problem that I think needs to be more fully examined in the religious liberty debate: the zero-sum universe. So much of the argumentation about religious liberty imagines that one side has to give up something in favor of the other side. Religious leaders too often see the expansion of equality for LGBT people as the diminishment of their liberty.
Such does not have to be the case, especially for Catholics. The history of Catholicism is replete with examples where great thinkers like Augustine, Aquinas, and John Courtney Murray reconciled faith with secular thought. More work needs to be done with finding common ground instead of fighting a turf war.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, February 18, 2017
New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis,is scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. Plenary speakers: Lisa Fullam, Leslie Griffin, Rev. Bryan Massingale, Frank Mugisha. Prayer leaders: Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Bishop John Stowe, OFM, Conv. Pre-Symposium Retreat Leader: Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS. For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.
At least 19 people identified as Catholics or employed by Catholic institutions have joined a group of 75 religious leaders in endorsing a “religious freedom” statement issued in December 2016 by The Colson Center for Christian Worldview.
Entitled “Preserve Freedom, Reject Coercion,” the seven-paragraph manifesto claims that religious freedom is under attack because of the adoption of SOGI (sexual orientation, gender identity) laws which have adopted these categories as “protected classifications in the law—either legislatively or through executive action.”
While such statements are not uncommon, and while conservative Catholic support for them is certainly not unusual, it is still surprising to find Catholic leaders agreeing to sign this particular document since it is so poorly worded and argued. For example, at one point, the statement claims:
“Creative professionals, wedding chapels, non-profit organizations, ministries serving the needy, adoption agencies, businesses, schools, religious colleges, and even churches have faced threats and legal action under such laws for declining to participate in a same-sex wedding ceremony; for maintaining policies consistent with their guiding principles; and for seeking to protect privacy by ensuring persons of the opposite sex do not share showers, locker rooms, restrooms, and other intimate facilities.”
I have followed marriage equality laws carefully, and I do not know of any law in the U.S. (or elsewhere, for that matter) which compel religious people or institutions to participate in same-sex ceremonies. I also do not know of any case where a religious institution has been penalized for not providing facilities for transgender people to use that are consistent with their gender identity. In fact, there have been cases where Catholic educational institutions have voluntarily provided such facilities for students because they see that as part of their religious mission.
Additionally, the statement makes a sweeping generalization which condemns religious exemptions as weak and ineffective:
We therefore believe that proposed SOGI laws, including those narrowly crafted, threaten fundamental freedoms, and any ostensible protections for religious liberty appended to such laws are inherently inadequate and unstable.
What is most surprising about this statement is that religious exemptions that have been incorporated into these laws have been done so not only at the request of religious leaders, but often with their active participation in crafting such exemptions. Are they now saying that the input of themselves and their colleagues was inadequate?
Overgeneralizing is also evident in one of the documents concluding passages:
“SOGI laws in all these forms, at the federal, state, and local levels, should be rejected. We join together in signing this letter because of the serious threat that SOGI laws pose to fundamental freedoms guaranteed to every person.”
Really? What about SOGI laws which protect victims of hate crimes or which punish what the Catholic Church has determined is “unjust discrimination” against LGBT people? How do the Catholic leaders who signed this document justify this statement in light of what the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said in its 1986 Letter on pastoral care with lesbian and gay people:
“It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church’s pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society. The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, in action and in law.”
Among the Catholics who added their names to this document are: Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, Chairman, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life, and Youth; Bishop Frank J. Dewaneof Venice, Florida, Chairman, USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development; William Fahey,President, Thomas More College of Liberal Arts; Sister Mary Sarah Galbraith, President, Aquinas College; Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, Chairman, USCCB Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty; Bishops George V. Murry, S.J. of Youngstown, Chairman, USCCB Committee on Catholic Education; Rev. Sean O. Sheridan, TOR, President, Franciscan University of Steubenville; H. James Towey, President, Ave Maria University; George Weigel, William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies, Ethics and Public Policy Center.
The Colson Center website states that the organization “seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending the Christian worldview.”
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, February 5, 2017
Today’s post is the second half of an analysis of how Catholic LGBT issues in the United States will play out in the new year, and with a new president taking office. Yesterday’s post, which you can read here, discussed emerging issues at the state and local level, contrasting the responses of two Catholic politicians in Virginia as an example.
I turn now to the national landscape. Writing for Religion Dispatches, SunnivieBrydum has identified areas at the federal government level where LGBT rights are likely to be threatened. In reading her article, we again ask: what can Catholics expect in the church and in society? And how can Catholics respond effectively?
First Amendment Defense Act
First, Brydum says the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) “is all but certain to become law.” This bill “exemplifies the ways in which the bedrock principle of religious freedom” has been weaponized to block the advance of LGBT equality.”
FADA is a federal version of the “right to discriminate” legislation which has appeared in state legislatures, allowing people and corporations to deny services to LGBT people if the person or corporation acts according to their religious beliefs. Brydum suggested that FADA’s passage in Congress will strengthen local efforts to enact “right to discriminate” laws.
Unfortunately, U.S. Catholic bishops have been leading figures in misusing religious liberty, particularly in regard to LGBT issues. Brydum noted that it was in a letter to Catholics that President-elect Trump said he would support FADA’s passage. These realities mean LGBT Catholics and their allies will have to challenge not only political but ecclesial forces in the coming year. We have to demand that church leaders adhere more closely to Catholic teaching which supports non-discrimination protections for LGBT people and the equality of persons rooted in human dignity.
Attacks on Healthcare Access
Brydum identified healthcare access as a second threatened area. She specifically identified the impact that proposed Secretary of Health and Services Tom Price will have. Price, a congressman from Georgia, has repeatedly voted against LGBT rights and “defended false equivalencies between pedophilia and homosexuality as nothing more than harmless ‘Christian beliefs regarding proper sexual ethics.'” Brydum continued:
“Crucially, Price also denounced the Obama administration’s landmark support for transgender students as an ‘absurd’ and ‘clear invasion of privacy.’. . .For the first time under the [Affordable Care Act], transgender Americans could not be denied gender-affirming health care simply because they were transgender.”
For sexual and gender minorities, changes to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) could eliminate vital programs which help many Americans, and particularly vulnerable populations, to obtain healthcare. One study estimated that 36,000 people would die each year if the ACA is repealed. Rea Carey, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, is quoted by Brydum saying, “If confirmed, Tom Price would steer HHS in a dangerous direction that’s motivated by profit and the desire to control our bodies.”
Again, despite Catholic teaching affirming healthcare as a human right, it has been Catholic bishops and political operatives who have repeatedly tried to stop passage of and then undermine the ACA. Healthcare that is affordable and informed about gender and sexuality issues is not always accessible to LGBT people, but many steps were taken under President Barack Obama to address systemic problems. Catholics will have to challenge any movement to reverse these lifesaving measures, and again demand that church leaders shift their focus.
Curtailed Civil Rights
The third and final national area Brydum addressed are LGBT civil rights, and, specifically, the impact changes at the Department of Justice might have. Brydum wrote:
“President Trump’s Department of Justice may use the muscle that agency developed under Obama to suppress voting rights, privatize education, and strip away existing civil rights protections. That last provision is particularly important for LGBT Americans, who enjoyed an unprecedented growth in legal equality under President Obama.”
However, Brydum said, the approval of Senator Jeff Sessions as Attorney General would mean “the fate of American civil rights law is effectively sealed” and the Department of Justice would become “a powerful foe.”
Catholics in the United States have repeatedly proven to be among the most LGBT- supportive religious believers, and Catholic politicians like Governor McAuliffe who have done much to advance LGBT rights in civil law. Civil rights is one area where it would be easy for church leaders to raise their voices; human rights are a settled matter in church teaching. The chilling silence of most U.S. bishops after 49 people were massacred at an LGBT club in Orlando cannot be repeated.
Looking Ahead in 2017
The road ahead will be much harder than it was under the previous presidential administration.Wherever civil rights come under attack, Catholics must step forward. Catholic LGBT advocates must be in solidarity with Muslim Americans, communities of color, people with disabilities, immigrants, women, and other marginalized groups who may come under attack. It is helpful to keep in mind these words from the Catholic Committee on Appalachia:
“Catholics are called by God to oppose discrimination in all of its forms. No religious conviction justifies our treatment of anyone as a second-class citizen. All are made in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, religious freedom does not trump civil rights, as both are important and should be protected equally.”
Now, more than ever, we must cultivate deeper roots of faith in Jesus Christ in which to ground our witness for equality in the church and in the world.
For the latest updates on Catholic LGBT issues, subscribe to Bondings 2.0 in the upper right-hand corner of this page.
In the last few years, LGBT rights have expanded rapidly in the United States. But 2017 will almost certainly have a different tenor as progress stalls and previously established rights come under attack.
In today’s and tomorrow’s posts, I explore the year ahead as it relates to Catholic LGBT issues. What can Catholics expect in the church and in society? And how can Catholics respond effectively? Today’s post focuses in on local politics, while tomorrow looks at the national landscape.
Contrasting Catholic Politicians in Virginia
An example of the contrasting responses which Catholics offer to LGBT people comes from Virginia. The state’s governor, Terry McAuliffe, who is Catholic, signed an executive order last week which prohibits employers contracted by state government from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity, reported the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Executive Order 61 establishes stipulations in contracts over $10,000 that prohibit “discrimination by the contractor, in its employment practices, subcontracting practices, and delivery of goods or services. . .”, and the order bans state employees from discriminating during the contracting process. McAuliffe commented in a statement:
“‘As my first act as governor, I signed Executive Order 1 to ban discrimination in the state workforce based on sexual orientation, take divisive social issue battles off the table and help build an open and welcoming economy.'”
But battles over LGBT rights have not stopped in Virginia. Indeed, just as McAuliffe signed his executive order, a fellow Catholic in the state legislature sought to curtail LGBT rights.
Delegate Robert Marshall introduced a bill that would “force transgender people to use the bathroom corresponding to the sex on their birth certificate,” according to the Times-Dispatch. It would also “require school principals to notify a student’s parents if the student makes any attempt to be ‘treated as the opposite sex.'”
The proposed legislation is similar to North Carolina’s HB 2 law and other state-level restrictions targeting LGBT people. Marshall’s proposal is not likely to pass, and Governor McAuliffe has promised to veto it if the General Assembly somehow approves the bill.
Increased Local Efforts to Stop LGBT Rights
LGBT advocates can expect many state-level political battles similar to what is playing out in Virginia, according to Sunnivie Brydum of Religion Dispatches, who wrote:
“Even before Trump’s unlikely electoral victory, each new legislative session brought a cornucopia of anti-LGBT bills introduced in state legislatures around the country. . .municipal involvement is going to be our best bet to resist Trump’s agenda. While it may seem counter-intuitive to focus a national resistance on regional or state offices, the truth is that local elections matter, and local politicians are often easier to access than high-ranking administration officials.”
Catholics in the United States now have a decision to make in the coming year. Will we act like Governor McAuliffe to ensure every LGBT person attains their human rights to the fullest extent possible? Will we act like Delegate Marshall by abandoning church teaching in the service of anti-LGBT ideology? Will we remain indifferent?
Thankfully, Catholics have previously proven to be willing and effective local advocates for LGBT rights. States with high numbers of Catholics were the first to pass marriage equality laws, and Catholics have successfully organized in recent elections to pass pro-LGBT referenda while stopping many anti-equality proposals. These local Catholic networks will have to re-organize themselves in offering a witness against attempts to roll back hard won rights. Beginning with town ordinances and state laws, Catholics must begin anew the hard work of achieving LGBT justice.
Tomorrow’s post will look at Catholic LGBT issues as they may play out on the national level, and offer some overall analysis about what may happen in 2017.
For the latest updates on Catholic LGBT issues, subscribe to Bondings 2.0 in the upper right-hand corner of this page.
Has the Republican electoral victory in the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives ushered in a new moment in the debate about religious liberty and LGBT rights? Jesuit Father Thomas Reese thinks so. In a blog post for The National Catholic Reporter, Reese, who has been serving as the chair of the Obama administration’s U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, makes the case that the new national mood means that it is now “Time for compromise on gay rights and religious freedom,” the title of the essay.
Reese says that the days of thinking of the debate as a “zero-sum game where no compromise is possible” should end. He describes the current political context of the debate:
“The Republican sweep should give gay activists pause. With Republicans in control of both houses of Congress and the White House, it is unlikely there will be any more gay-friendly legislation or regulations. While Trump does not appear to be a homophobe, he is appointing to his administration people who would like to roll back gains of the gay community, and his judicial appointees will undoubtedly look askance on expanding gay rights. Although he will not press for a reversal on gay rights, he will probably sign any religious liberty legislation he gets from the Republican Congress. . . .
“The best the gays can hope for is a retention of the status quo. But it is just as likely that they will see roll back in some areas. Will this encourage the gay community to compromise or will it make them dig in for a longer fight?”
And religious liberty advocates might be tempted to view the new mood as a total success for their perspective, but Reese cautions that this kind of thinking would be a mistake:
“The danger is that they will see [the defeat of Hillary Clinton and the success of Republican candidates] as a total rejection of the gay agenda and an opportunity to reassert their power. But it would be a dangerous mistake if they overreached.
“They should remember those polls that show growing sympathy for gays, especially among young people. In addition, the business community has been willing to use its economic power to push states like Indiana to reverse religious freedom legislation if it is seen as anti-gay.
“Nor should they forget that Donald Trump says that same-sex marriage is here to stay. He even spoke of protecting LGBTQ citizens in his acceptance speech at the Republican Convention, a first for a Republican nominee. While Congress and his administration will be filled with people who have opposed gay rights, this opposition is not a priority with Trump. And if history continues to repeat itself, the Democrats will be back in the White House in four or eight years.”
Reese surmises that this atmosphere which is fragile to both sides’ goals “presents the country with an ideal opportunity to discuss compromise.” Reese’s vision of one possible compromise is as follows:
“In broad strokes, it would see an extension of nondiscriminatory laws to cover gays while providing limited exemptions for religious believers and institutions. People could no longer be discriminated against in employment, housing, and public accommodation based on their sexual identity or orientation, but church institutions would retain the right to employ and serve on the basis of their faith claims.”
Reese sees the following benefits for the gay community in such a compromise:
“They get national legislation outlawing discrimination in all but a few instances of employment, housing, and public accommodation. Most of the pie is better than nothing. In addition, they get to appear gracious in victory, knowing that the real challenge is not getting legislation passed but winning over most people to a recognition that gays should be treated with respect. As long as they are seen as attacking religion, they will meet opposition from people for whom religion is a central part of their lives.”
Religious leaders would gain the following:
“More certainty about what is legal or illegal. The ability to run their institutions according to their beliefs without state interference or the fear of being sued. Clear exemptions that protect their institutional freedom. An end to being portrayed as homophobic.”
Reese’s proposal has its appeal, but it has its flaws, too. For one thing, he sees the debate as much more black-and-white than it actually is. We are not in a situation of gays on one side and religious people on the other. What about all the LGBT people who themselves are religious and who want their faith institutions protected? What about the many religious people who see religious freedom as primarily protecting religious people and their consciences, and not just institutions? The reality of the debate is a lot more complex than two totally separate, opposing camps.
Related to this idea of complexity is the situation of LGBT people being fired from employment or dismissed from volunteer opportunities with religious institutions. Reese does not really address that important question in his essay.
Second, he sees religious people as motivated by conscience and faith, and the LGBT community motivated by achieving political reform. That is why he urges the LGBT community to engage in a pragmatic compromise so that they can achieve some, if not all, of their goals. He blames the inability to compromise on LGBT leaders, not the grassroots:
“Most gays would accept these exemptions, but sadly the activists are not interested in compromise.”
While it is certainly true that leaders and the grassroots don’t often share the same opinions (Catholic bishops and lay people are an excellent example), in the case of LGBT rights vs. religious liberty advocates, I think that the leaders and grassroots are on the same page.
From the perspective of LGBT people, especially those at the grassroots, the issue is not one of mere pragmatism, but one of being legally and politically considered as second-class. The debate for LGBT people is as much a matter of closely-held principles (such as human dignity) as it is for the religious liberty advocates.
A third problem with the argument Reese lays out is that he seems to minimize the details of what compromises might involve. He states:
“”The details of the compromise need to be negotiated, and the results might be different in different localities. How small should be the family businesses that are exempted? What about an individual employee who has a conscience problem? What if there is no alternative business or employee available to the gay person? For florists and bakeries, should the exemption only cover same-sex weddings and not other purchases? Should exemptions for religious institutions cover all employees, including janitors, or only those considered “ministers” and teachers of religion? Can issues like bathrooms and locker rooms for transgender persons be postponed for a later day?”
These details are important, and involve some very important practical concerns as well as principles. Compromising on many of them could mean allowing for discriminatory practices to still exist.
A final weakness of Reese’s argument is that the definition of religious liberty is not something that should be dictated by leaders of religious institutions alone. If religious liberty laws are going to allow exemptions for secular businesses run by religious leaders, then that already is an admission that religion is not just a matter of institutional concern, but personal concern, too. So, religious liberty proposals need to take into account the religious concerns of LGBT people and their supporters, too.
Despite my critique of Reese’s argument, I think he is sincere in his efforts to try to resolve this debate in a way that allows LGBT people to gain steps toward equality. He is certainly not motivated by homophobia, but more from a desire to see LGBT people win some political gains during what promises to be a difficult four years. The overall weakness of his essay is that it doesn’t take the LGBT perspective seriously enough to see what values, as well as practicalities, are at stake for them, or how they view the issue.
Fr. Reese has been a strong supporter of LGBT equality. You can read about a number of his previous statements about LGBT issues by clicking here. I thank him for using his powerful voice to advocate for LGBT people.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, December 5, 2016