Why Religious Refusals Hurt and Why Catholics Oppose them by Marianne Duddy-Burke

Homily Date

Why Religious Refusals Hurt—and Why Catholics Oppose Them

Congressional Briefing

November 17, 2014

Marianne Duddy-Burke


Good morning. My name is Marianne Duddy-Burke. I serve as the Executive Director of DignityUSA, the U.S.’s largest organization of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (or LGBT) Catholics, our families, friends and allies. I am also part of a number of coalitions concerned with ensuring that the voices of Catholics who have experiences, perspectives and beliefs different from those expressed by our bishops—especially as it pertains to public policy—are heard. These include Catholic Organizations for Renewal, Women-Church Convergence, Equally Blessed and the Coalition for Liberty and Justice. I am honored to represent the members of these groups in speaking with you today.

Although the US Catholic bishops have been very active on civil matters for decades, the reality is that, on many issues, their messages to lawmakers are inconsistent with what strong majorities of Catholic voters believe. US Catholics have substantive differences with Church leaders on both specific policy questions and broader issues the bishops are focused on, such as expansion of religious exemptions and claims of violations of religious liberty. Catholics’ decisions about these issues are due to their commitment to the social justice principles of our faith, and from careful, prayerful, and long reflection on the impact on members of their families, friends, coworkers or people in their faith communities.

Catholic tradition and teaching are very clear that every person has equal dignity and worth, and that every person has a right to be guided by her or his well-formed conscience to do what she or he believes is right. These core Catholic values are very much at odds with the kind of rhetoric and demands coming from Catholic bishops.

The bishops’ demands that the government allow them to discriminate against people who hold different religious beliefs about marriage, family life and health care are in stark contrast with these values, and with what most Catholics in the U.S. believe. The majority of the 70 million Catholics in this country have embraced the teaching from the Second Vatican Council that “civil authority must see to it that the equality of citizens before the law…is never violated either openly or covertly for religious reasons and that there is no discrimination among citizens.”

Catholics do not want our government to create special rules or exemptions from the law that allow some people, some institutions and some businesses to discriminate against people who hold different beliefs. This would violate our fundamental commitment to social justice and the common good. We are here to talk with you today about the real harm that could result if our bishops get their way.

For example, in the wake of this June’s Supreme Court ruling in the Hobby Lobby case, Catholic bishops and leaders of Catholic agencies have been seeking to expand laws that exempt Churches from many employment, health coverage, and public accommodations provisions to cover other religiously-affiliated institutions, such as social service agencies, colleges, and hospitals, even if these institutions are publicly funded. In addition, there have been attempts to allow businesses to refuse to hire or provide services to people on the basis of the owners’ religious beliefs.  These initiatives are strongly opposed by majorities of Catholics. In my role, I see examples every week of what happens to LGBT people, and to people who support LGBT equality, when exemptions like this exist.

Since the beginning of 2013, at least three dozen people have gone public with their stories of being fired from jobs in Catholic churches or schools because they are LGBT, have supported LGBT equality in some way, or have legally wed a same-sex partner. These firings deprive people of their ability to support themselves and their families through work that is often seen as a vocation, at least temporarily, and often for a very long time. It is important to note that in many cases, people who believe being gay or transgender is morally wrong have copied Facebook or other social media postings, or even found the name of a same-sex partner listed in a family obituary, and taken this to a priest or bishop as evidence of wrongdoing, often anonymously. Catholic officials too often side with the complainer against a person with a long history of service to the Church. For each of these victims, I have heard from at least four others who have also been fired, or who have been threatened with dismissal. They are seeking help and support, but who cannot go public for a variety of reasons. In many cases, they live in small communities, and fear that they would have no chance of getting another position if they tell their stories. Others need to protect their children, partners, or other family members from being targets of the harassment or discrimination they fear would result from going public. And I am sure that, even beyond the stories that I hear, there are many, many more people who have the same experience, but do not know or want to reach out to organizations like ours that can provide support.

We have also heard from several employees of Catholic hospitals—recipients of Medicare, Medicaid and other public funding—who have been denied benefits for their same-sex spouses. In some cases, the application has been flat-out rejected. In others, paperwork went missing until after the application deadline had passed, or the employee was told to withdraw the application if she or he hoped to remain employed at that institution. This has occurred even in at least one hospital that has retained its Catholic name even though it is now owned by a for-profit corporation.

Much of this is occurring in institutions—churches and religious schools--that are currently exempt from almost all federal and state employment laws. If exemptions are extended to agencies funded with taxpayer dollars, or even to private businesses, as some Catholic bishops are advocating, the number of LGBT people who can be refused employment, fired, or denied benefits because someone in charge believes being gay, being transgender, or supporting same-sex marriage is sinful will rise dramatically, and millions of people will be at risk.

In addition, in several states including Ohio, California, and Hawaii, bishops have recently ordered Catholic school teachers to sign contracts that include draconian morality clauses as a condition of employment. In some cases, teachers are forced to initial each item in a list of statements that includes things like pledges not to use birth control, not to use any sort of assistive technology in reproduction, not to attend gay pride marches, and not to attend same-sex wedding ceremonies, even for their own children or other loved ones. This is a clear violation of individuals’ consciences, and has led to terminations of teachers with decades of exemplary service who refused to sign the contract or initial individual clauses. We have also seen some individuals who are parents of LGBT people, or who have had children or grandchildren born using reproductive technologies walk off their jobs rather than sign these contracts. Can you imagine if such contracts are allowed to become part of employment agreements in other settings? This could happen if religious exemptions are permitted to expand.

We also know that Catholic Charities, which in many states is the largest taxpayer funded provider of foster care and adoption services, has been refusing to place children with same-sex couples, single parents, and cohabitating couples for years, if not decades, even when these prospective parents have successfully completed the very rigorous training, home inspection, and personal evaluations required to be certified by their states to provide homes for waiting children. This was brought to light by cases in Massachusetts, Washington, DC and Colorado when Catholic Charities in those states sought waivers from contractual requirements not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or marital status. Now, our bishops are pushing the ironically named “Inclusion Act,” which would allow Catholic Charities and other faith-based service organizations with public contracts to refuse to place children with anyone they deem morally unsuitable. They claim their religious liberty would be trampled without this law, but in truth, the people who are harmed are the 397,000 children in foster care, over 120,000 of whom are children awaiting adoption, who would be deprived of whole communities of people who may be well-qualified, loving parents. This issue is very personal to me. My spouse and I are the parents of two amazing daughters whom we adopted through the Massachusetts foster care system. We applied first to Catholic Charities, and were told they would not place children with us. We were fortunate that our state’s Department of Children and Families had a strong commitment to diverse families, and so were able to form our family with their full support. Had we lived elsewhere, this may not have happened.

Catholics understand that all of this is wrong.  That is why in the recent Belden Russonello survey, 87% of US Catholics oppose a tax-funded organization refusing to hire someone who is gay or lesbian, including 71% who strongly disapprove. Nearly three-quarters (74%) of Catholics disapprove of a law that would allow a business to deny services to employees or customers on the basis of sexual orientation due to an owner’s religious beliefs. Eighty-four percent (84%) of Catholics disapprove of a guidance counselor refusing to help a gay or lesbian student due to the counselor’s religious beliefs, and 70% strongly disapprove of this. These provisions are rejected by Catholics of all demographic and political groups, and are likely due to the very high percentage of Catholics who acknowledge having an openly LGBT family member or close friend.

One thing that I’d like to note for those of you in public service. You may in fact already be hearing from Catholics who have positions different from the bishops on many of these issues, but who do not identify themselves with their faith affiliation. We certainly found this in the LGBT world. On issues from employment discrimination to same-sex marriage, we have heard from many advocating for equality that they will identify themselves as parents or siblings of LGBT people, as social service workers who see the effects of discrimination, or even just as concerned voters. They report they feel that if they identify up front as Catholic, the person with whom they are speaking may automatically assume they hold positions contrary to their true beliefs, because the bishops’ voice on so many issues is so loud. So they edit their faith out of their public profile, and allow the less progressive stance to continue to be identified with our Church. This is a problem that has had major consequences in public policy, and a reason that surveys like the Belden-Russonello study and briefings like this are important. While we are working to encourage progressive Catholics to talk about the values in our faith that lead them to the positions they hold, it may take some time for them to realize their beliefs are just as valid as those of our bishops. I encourage you to listen with this in the back of your mind, and to create space for those of us who hold Catholic majority positions to speak in the context of our faith.

Thank you for your attention. I’ll be glad to respond to questions at the conclusion of the briefing.