Review: The devout Catholic at the heart of the Supreme Court’s landmark same-sex marriage case
Last year marked the fifth anniversary of Obergefell v. Hodges, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional. Two of the plaintiffs in that case were Greg Bourke and Michael DeLeon, who had been married in Canada but whose legal union was not recognized in their home state of Kentucky. In his memoir, Gay, Catholic, and American: My Legal Battle for Equality and Inclusion, Bourke illuminates the devout faith that sustained him and his husband through the legal journey that resulted in the groundbreaking marriage-equality ruling. He describes in detail the unexpected support he received from some members of the clergy and parishioners as well as his struggle within a church that he says denied him and his spouse full acceptance and “sacramental equality.”
The National Catholic Reporter named Bourke and DeLeon 2015 its Catholic Persons of the Year for participating in the watershed case. The award also recognized the men’s devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Louisville, Ky., which they had begun attending in 1987.
In 2004, Bourke and DeLeon had wed in Ontario, Canada, the only place in North America they could legally do so. Neither the U.S. government nor the Catholic Church recognized the marriage, but Bourke believes that God blessed the union. When Bourke and DeLeon joined Our Lady of Lourdes, Bourke met with the pastor to ask if he would accept an openly gay couple. The priest welcomed Bourke and DeLeon without stipulations.
Bourke and DeLeon had originally filed a lawsuit in 2013 challenging Kentucky’s state ban on same-sex marriage because both men wanted to legally adopt their two sons.
When the pair brought their first son, Bryson, to church in 1999, worshipers greeted the family warmly. Nonetheless, Bourke feared that parishioners would object to the husbands standing before the congregation as a couple when they presented Bryson for baptism. Despite Bourke’s concerns, the fathers presented their son alongside several other babies, and the community welcomed them. The men later adopted and baptized 3-year-old Isaiah as well.
“From that point on for many years we were just like any other family at church each week with our kids,” Bourke writes. “We had the occasional exit from Mass to the cry room and for time-outs with antsy toddlers, but for the most part we were church regulars. Everyone at Lourdes gradually got used to seeing our alternative family there together. How amazing is that?”
In 2004, Bourke had saved Isaiah’s Cub Scout pack from dissolving by taking over for the departing leader. The Boy Scouts of America’s ban on openly gay leaders forced Bourke to remain closeted while volunteering. Out of frustration with having to hide his marriage and sexual orientation, Bourke eventually outed himself in a letter to the executive of his local Boy Scout council. B.S.A. officials asked him to resign, but Bourke refused—until his pastor told him that representatives of the local Scout council threatened to revoke Our Lady of Lourdes’s B.S.A. charter, which would end the church’s scouting program.
In 2015, the Boy Scouts of America lifted its ban on openly gay Scout masters and let sponsoring organizations use their own criteria to choose leaders. Bourke asked the archdiocese if he could re-apply for the troop’s leadership position, but the archbishop denied his request. The National Catholic Committee on Scouting, a church committee of Catholic lay people and members of the clergy who seek to work with the B.S.A. as a viable form of youth ministry for Catholic youth, explained in a letter to priests that “[a]ll pastoral leaders in these ministries should be able to provide a credible and integrated witness in their lives to the teachings of the Catholic Church, including its teachings on marriage, sexuality, and charity.”
According to Bourke, when he met with Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz to request reinstatement as a Scout leader, he asked whether getting divorced would enable him to return to his position. Kurtz did not answer. “The irony of my suggestion, that I get a divorce from a marriage the Church didn’t recognize in the first place, wasn’t lost on anyone,” Bourke wrote. Citing Pope Francis’ openness toward L.G.B.T. Catholics, DeLeon wrote again to the archbishop asking him to reconsider. Kurtz replied cordially but did not change his stance.
In 2016, watching his parents’ physical decline prompted Bourke to take stock of any spiritual baggage he was carrying—and what would happen if he died unexpectedly. “I decided to call a truce at least from my side and instead try prayer and reconciliation,” Bourke writes. “Realizing we have so much more in common in our faith and the great traditions of our Church, we had no choice but to move forward together. The Church was not going anywhere. Neither were Michael and I.”
In 2016, watching his parents’ physical decline prompted Bourke to take stock of any spiritual baggage he was carrying—and what would happen if he died unexpectedly.
Determined to overcome his resentment, Bourke sent the archbishop conciliatory cards and letters. When the two men saw each other at a parishioner’s funeral, Bourke thanked the archbishop for his leadership. Kurtz thanked Bourke for his notes.
On the civil law side of the question, Bourke and DeLeon had originally filed a lawsuit in 2013 challenging Kentucky’s state ban on same-sex marriage because both men wanted to legally adopt their two sons. Kentucky law prohibited unmarried couples from adopting, so DeLeon (whose employer offered generous adoption benefits) had served since 1999 as the sole official parent of their boys. The two had worried about Bourke losing custody of their children if DeLeon died before him. The legal process eventually led to the case being heard by federal courts, and their lawsuit was merged with others in Obergefell v. Hodges.
In that 2015 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that prohibiting same-sex marriage violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantees of due process and equal protection. Writing for the majority in a 5-to-4 decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that marriage is unique among contracts. The justices argued that the plaintiffs’ desire for the obligations and privileges of matrimony demonstrated respect for the profound commitment it requires. As a result, all 50 U.S. states were required to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and to recognize same-sex marriages across jurisdictions.
“Michael and I spent many thousands of dollars on legal fees just hedging our bets and having legal documents prepared, notarized, filed, and frequently revised just so that, if necessary, we would have some of the basic rights that legally married couples take for granted,” Bourke wrote.
Readers curious about how one devout Catholic lives with the tension among official church teaching, his personal spiritual experience and his sexual orientation will find Bourke’s detailed account thought-provoking. Gay, Catholic, and American can inspire both L.G.B.T. and straight Catholics who seek reconciliation.