With the House of Representatives expected to vote this week on a bill that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to existing federal nondiscrimination laws, Catholic leaders find themselves on both sides of the debate. Some warn that the passage of the bill would put religious liberty in jeopardy while others say it is past time for L.G.B.T. Americans to feel protected in areas of housing, education and employment.
In March, three U.S. bishops wrote to members of Congress on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops urging them to vote against the bill, known as the Equality Act. That has not stopped other Catholics from supporting the measure.
“Our Christian faith must not be used to deny the inherent dignity of every person,” Sister Simone Campbell, the head of the social justice lobbying group Network, said in a statement. Known for her “Nuns on the Bus” tours, Sister Campbell participated in a multi-faith prayer service in Washington on May 14 aimed at showing broad religious support for the bill. She said in her statement that Congress “must pass the Equality Act and enshrine LGBTQ+ civil rights into law.”
Three U.S. bishops wrote to members of Congress urging them to vote against the bill, known as the Equality Act.
The prayer group brought with them a petition signed by more than 5,000 faith leaders. At least two dozen other Catholic sisters appear to have signed the document, and it is unclear if any Catholic priests signed on.
But one Catholic deacon lent his name to the effort.
The Rev. Mr. Ray Dever, a deacon in Florida, said he signed the petition because he believes the church’s social justice teachings compel Catholics to support measures that protect an individual’s rights to housing, work and a life free from discrimination.
“We’ve kind of lost sight sometimes of the fundamental beliefs of social justice,” Mr. Dever told America.
Mr. Dever said he approaches the issue personally as the parent of a transgender daughter. He said that if church leaders contributed to the conversation about L.G.B.T. nondiscrimination laws from a place of seeking to protect people from discrimination, their concerns about religious liberty, which he shares, might be taken more seriously. Some leaders, he said, find themselves “part of the polarization that’s going on. We should be part of the cooperation in making these things work.”
“Our Christian faith must not be used to deny the inherent dignity of every person,” said Sister Simone Campbell, the head of the social justice lobbying group Network.
Some opponents of the Equality Act have said that the measure could force hospitals with religious affiliations to provide care that goes against their beliefs.
On Thursday, the Catholic Health Association sent a letter to lawmakers expressing concern that the current version of the bill does not protect religious liberty.
“Access to health care is essential to promote and protect the inherent and inalienable worth and dignity of every individual and every individual seeking health care should always be treated with compassion and respect,” wrote Sister Carol Keehan, president and C.E.O. of the organization. “Refusing to provide medical assistance or [health] care services because of discomfort with or animus against an individual on any basis is unacceptable.”
But Sister Keehan said the measure rolls back religious liberty protections.
“[F]ederal law has long recognized that certain services can present a potential conflict for some faith-based health care providers with religious or moral objections to providing those services, and protected them from having to do so. We are concerned that the Equality Act omits and could erode or reverse those protections,” she wrote.
“We share with the Act’s authors a desire to end unjust discrimination against any person. We urge Congress to craft a bill that would respect the dignity and protect the rights of all who could be affected by the legislation. For the above reasons, however, we are unable to support the Equality Act as written,” she said.
The Equality Act would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Fair Housing Act, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, the Jury Selection and Services Act and some employment laws, according to the Human Rights Campaign, an L.G.B.T. advocacy organization that supports the bill.
“Decades of civil rights history show that civil rights laws are effective in decreasing discrimination because they provide strong federal remedies targeted to specific vulnerable groups,” the group said in a statement on March 20. “By explicitly including sexual orientation and gender identity in these fundamental laws, LGBTQ people will finally be afforded the exact same protections as other covered characteristics under federal law.”
Fewer than half of U.S. states offer nondiscrimination legal protections for L.G.B.T. people, which supporters of the Equality Act said warrants federal attention. The Public Religion Research Institute said in a report last month that “Americans remain widely supportive of broad nondiscrimination protections,” citing recent polls to suggest that about 70 percent of Americans favor laws “that would protect LGBT people from discrimination in jobs, public accommodations, and housing.”
Fewer than half of U.S. states offer nondiscrimination legal protections for L.G.B.T. people, which supporters of the Equality Act said warrants federal attention.
Controversy about the bill is due, in part, to a provision that forbids any employer or retailer from using the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to justify withholding services based on gender or sexual orientation. That law, which received bipartisan support when it passed in 1993, bars the government from interfering with the rights of religious practitioners. It has been used many times to defend the rights of religious minorities in the United States, including cases involving the rights of Native Americans, Jews and Sikhs. More recently, the law has generated controversy, such as when it was used in the 2014 Supreme Court case involving Hobby Lobby.
In their letter to Congress, the U.S. bishops said that passage of the Equality Act would limit free speech, restrict religious freedom, harm health care and threaten privacy, charity and individuals’ careers.
“[T]he Equality Act would impose sweeping regulations to the detriment of society as a whole,” states the letter, which was signed by Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, Bishop James D. Conley and Bishop Frank J. Dewane, each of whom chair a U.S.C.C.B. committee or subcommittee. “By exempting itself from the bipartisan Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993—an unprecedented move—the Equality Act represents an explicit departure from one of the founding principles of the United States, the freedom of religion.”
The U.S. bishops said that passage of the Equality Act would limit free speech, restrict religious freedom, harm health care and threaten privacy, charity and individuals’ careers.
Earlier this month, those bishops, along with the Most Rev. Michael Barber, S.J., the bishop of Oakland, co-signed a letter with the heads of the National Association of Evangelicals, the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and the Lutheran Center for Religious Liberty, an organization affiliated with the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod.
“The Equality Act undercuts the religious freedom of millions of Americans who live out their faith by serving others through religiously motivated charitable ministries and organizations,” that letter states.
Some Catholics have been critical of the efforts by the U.S.C.C.B. in opposition to the bill.
“The bishops’ letter fails to adequately take into account the real and specific ways in which LGBTQ people face unjust discrimination,” wrote John Gehring, a contributing editor at Commonweal magazine and the Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life.
But the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that opposes the Equality Act, pointed to concerns related to Catholic health care. It noted that some Catholic hospitals have been sued for declining to provide surgeries and other treatments related to gender transition.
“This bill would politicize medicine by forcing doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals to offer drastic procedures—not in view of new scientific discoveries, but by ideological fiat,” the group said on its website.
The House of Representatives is expected to vote on the Equality Act this week. With the support of every Democratic member of the House, plus the strong backing of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, it is expected to pass. But with fewer supporters in the Republican-controlled Senate and reports that the Trump administration is not on board with the bill, its future is unclear.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
This story has been updated with a statement from the Catholic Health Association.