Some Catholic advocates support Equality Act, despite opposition from U.S. bishops

Photo by Ian Tuck on Unsplash

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.

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“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.

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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. 

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Rudolph Koser
4 months ago

Dear Bishops
Keep over reacting to social war issues like LGBT and Pro life but not say a peep or only issue anemic letters about border issues, putting kids in cages, etc with continued revelations about clergy abuse and see how many more people give up on the Church especially younger people. Leadership is out of touch.

Mike Macrie
3 months 4 weeks ago

Then they wonder why the Pews are empty. How many good Catholics who might have a gay son or daughter are these Bishops going to run out of the Church. These guys are not going to change. If these Bishops can’t tolerate gay people then put up a sign above the Church Door that reads “ No Gays Allowed” . They need to stop being homophobic and Hypocrites.

Crystal Watson
4 months ago

Heaven forbid the Catholic church be for equality. Instead the church stands for the right to hate and discriminate against others. Shame on the church.

Annette Magjuka
4 months ago

Thank you, Sr. Simone. As usual you speak truth to power. In light of the sex scandals and cover ups, the discrimination against LGBTQ people, and the continued misogyny in the church, I now give zero $ to the parish or appeals, and all my donations to NETWORK, the Catholic organization that best represents Catholic justice. I give to my Alma mater, too.

Michael Bindner
4 months ago

The bishops will beg for legislation, including exemptions for their own bigotry once the second federal circuit decides that Civil Rights Protections for gender include gender identity, with no new exceptions. The Church does not recognize civil marriage as sacramental. To treat one form differently from another because of sexuality is simply bigotry.

Arvind Kumar
4 months ago

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Vincent Gaglione
4 months ago

I find it hard to believe that a bill cannot be crafted that protects religious exemption rights as well as protects the rights of L.G.B.Q.T. citizens. Or have our politicians and political parties become so ideological as to forget the necessity of compromise? Personally I am suspect of the “religious rights” issues raised so often by Catholics. Sometimes I see those rights used as a mask for the very discrimination about which they claim to oppose. I may be very naïve about this but some backroom politicking seems necessary here, as well as in many other instances.

JOHN GRONDELSKI
4 months ago

Read section 1107 -- it's very clear HOW the bill is crafted.

JOHN GRONDELSKI
4 months ago

deleted

rose-ellen caminer
4 months ago

I am surprised that the Bishops have taken this stance;opposing the Equality Act. The issue of discrimination against groups, is a paramount concern for Christians and LGBT identified people have historically been adversely effected by the anti gay norms of the past. They are just coming out of this and so the legal recognition of this group as a protective class is a a very needed step to do this. The bishops putting a monkey wrench in this , is totally unnecessary and harms the Church as well as LGBT people.

I do not share the belief that this would conflict with the religious liberty of Catholic health care institutions and providers. Though anyone can sue anyone about anything, no law would ever mandate that a health care provider or hospital force someone to do elective surgeries.

There is real religious discrimination in many places but pitting LGBT people against the Catholic Church, by invoking religious liberty, and its converse, religious persecution, makes the Catholic Church in the US appear callous towards LGBT people and the Church appear paranoid. Catholics are not a persecuted group in America.

We DO have religious liberty; religious liberty in a secular state cannot include persecuting by discriminating , in public venues , [protected] classes of people. If you own a business that makes wedding cakes, you can't discriminate and refuse to do so for a protected class of people.If LGBT people are not a protected class , then they can become second class citizens and be told ; "we don't serve your kind' here," albeit in a gentle way ,of course.;"go across the street , down the block, around the corner, in the next town; they'll be delighted to sell you the cake"[ which we sell to those not your kind].. Which is why LGBT people need to become a protected group.But no law FORCES you to make wedding cakes or annotate wedding cakes. THAT would be religious persecution and a violation of your religious freedom.Same for surgeries that are elective. The bishops are creating a scandal and issue of religion freedom/persecution that does not really exist. [IMO]it makes the Catholic Church appear lacking in charity towards LGBT people,which hurts them unjustly and therefore also hurts the Church.

Wilson Gray
4 months ago

Apparently, the official Church is in favor of revivifying the practice of Jim Crow as it was codified in the signage, WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO REFUSE SERVICE TO ANYONE, wherein ANYONE was understood by black Americans not to mean ANYONE in general, but, rather, as the weasel-word, "polite" term for COLORED, in particular. How is faith-based discrimination distinct from and superior to race-based discrimination? I don't believe that any Catholic hospital is being sued because it refused to provide sex-reassignment surgery. Such surgery requires a trained, highly-skilled surgical staff. Where in the world is the Catholic hospital that maintains - and pays - the requisite staffing: surgeons, endocrinologists, nurses, psychologists, social workers, etc.? It's no more possible to force a "Chrishtan" hospital to deal with sex-change than it is to force a hospital with no ophthalmological surgeon on staff to provide retina-reattachment surgery.
Besides, the concept of the One, True Faith hooking up with its natural enemies, the pillars of Protestant fundamentalism - 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 - should give anyone pause. That can't possibly be a good thing!

Jeffery Fox
4 months ago

The very title of the article gives away it's "progressive" agenda. Although the vast majority of U.S. Bishops realize the religious protections that go away with this bill - the push for gender confused rights continue. The publication of the article emanates from the gender confusion and doctrine confusion of the editor Fr. Martin. Gender "identity" should not be protected by law or faith. Should we protect the identity of those with child attraction or those that identify as mermaids? The madness will only continue. We should empathize and love our confused brethren - not enact their confusion into law.

Franklyn BUSBY
3 months 4 weeks ago

Lest we forget... the deceit and perversions of the past century were aided and abetted by quite specific Church laws protecting pedophile priests, bishops, and cardinals (the lack of capitalization is intentional). Since you are concerned with what was is protected by law, where were you while that was (and still is) going on?

Crystal Watson
4 months ago

The bishops aren't the only ones. They are following the lead of Pope Francis, who has said some really negative things about marriage for LGBTQ people and about gender theory.

John Rysavy
4 months ago

Trump nailed it....Fake News and now Fake Catholics. Either you follow Church teachings or you don’t....applies equally to all....myself included.

J Cosgrove
4 months ago

Just as anyone can say they are a Catholic and no one is allowed to question it, anyone can say they are a woman or a man and no one should be able to question it. Someone suggested that Trump declare that s(he) is a woman and would be the first same sex marriage president as well as the first gay president as well as the first female president. Could kill a lot of birds with just a simple declaration.

J Cosgrove
4 months ago

Some have said we are in a Civil War and one side has 300 million guns and the other doesn't know which bathroom to use. While a joke, it has a kernel of truth.

John Rysavy
4 months ago

😉👍🇺🇸

Crystal Watson
4 months ago

No one can define who is a "real" Catholic. Some of the most dissenting Catholics have gone on to become saints. As for gender identity, I'm not surprised that the actual science means nothing to you guys, but for those who are still able to think, here's an article from Nature about gender identity ... https://www.nature.com/news/sex-redefined-1.16943

John Rysavy
4 months ago

Who is this “no one”
Saul & Augustine are 2 great examples who then became champions of the Bible. Nature is for sure a great source....but the Bible has the first and last say.... let’s just say it is a binary subject......black and white/good and evil/male and female.....

John Rysavy
4 months ago

Some Catholics support partial birth abortion.....

John Rysavy
4 months ago

I am not in agreement with either statement.....

JOHN GRONDELSKI
4 months ago

I was wondering when the useful idiots of the Catholic Left would appear....

Read S 788 (the "Equality Act"), section 1107, which explicitly excludes any religious freedom claims on the basis of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (the first time ever an exception has been carved into the RFRA) in defense of one's refusal to cooperate with whatever gets defined as "discrimination." This bill is extremely one-sided and adverse to Catholic religious freedom interests--obviously what the "Catholic" Left would endorse.

Crystal Watson
4 months ago

I just watched the Fox town hall with Mayor Pete Buttigieg. So weird that we in the US can have a really good candidate for president who is gay and married, but the Catholic church wants to cling to a baseless medieval interpretation of scripture that tries to doom a whole group of people.

Franklyn BUSBY
3 months 4 weeks ago

Lacking from this stream of comments is any acknowledgement of the travesty of the Roman Catholic Church aligning itself with three groups mentioned in the article (National Association of Evangelicals, Southern Baptist Convention, and Missouri Synod Lutherans). If pressed, all three groups will admit (confess) their adamant belief that Roman Catholics are not Christians and are "irredeemably bound for hell" if they don't convert to fundamentalist protestantism. When one considers the thousands of evangelical/fundamentalist protestant denominations in the U.S., a group of three (plus the mis-guided hierarchs of the Roman Catholic Church) is a hollow voice indeed.

Additionally, that even groups like the Mormons cannot support the intellectually compromised "logic" used in the protests being put forth speaks to the countless flaws in the positions of the hate-mongers.

Mike Macrie
3 months 4 weeks ago

Good point !

JOHN GRONDELSKI
3 months 4 weeks ago

Would you prefer we align with Anglicans who determine morality by vote and Methodists imploding about whether to abide by Christian norms pretty universally accepted until two decades ago?

J Cosgrove
3 months 3 weeks ago

If people are still reading about this nonsense, they should read an editorial in the Detroit News. This is an incredibly harmful piece of legislation and how anyone could support it is beyond me.
http://bit.ly/30CXt3h

Anthony Noble
3 months 3 weeks ago

The US Bishops and all Catholics should read The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Number 2358, which states "Every sign of unjust discrimination in their [ LGBT individuals] regard should be avoided." The support of Catholics for the equality of the LGBT community is part of our dogma and should be followed as such. I'm ashamed when Catholic organizations, even schools, fire gay staff. I also wonder why there is such a focus on gay people - why not fire fornicationers, slanderers, liars, religious hypocrites, Catholic employees who miss weekly Mass, and other behaviors deemed sinful by Catholic dogma?

Anthony Noble
3 months 3 weeks ago

The US Bishops and all Catholics should read The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Number 2358, which states "Every sign of unjust discrimination in their [ LGBT individuals] regard should be avoided." The support of Catholics for the equality of the LGBT community is part of our dogma and should be followed as such. I'm ashamed when Catholic organizations, even schools, fire gay staff. I also wonder why there is such a focus on gay people - why not fire fornicationers, slanderers, liars, religious hypocrites, Catholic employees who miss weekly Mass, and other behaviors deemed sinful by Catholic dogma?

Anthony Noble
3 months 3 weeks ago

The US Bishops and all Catholics should read The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Number 2358, which states "Every sign of unjust discrimination in their [ LGBT individuals] regard should be avoided." The support of Catholics for the equality of the LGBT community is part of our dogma and should be followed as such. I'm ashamed when Catholic organizations, even schools, fire gay staff. I also wonder why there is such a focus on gay people - why not fire fornicationers, slanderers, liars, religious hypocrites, Catholic employees who miss weekly Mass, and other behaviors deemed sinful by Catholic dogma?

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