Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
Last week, a story headlined, “Some Catholic advocates support Equality Act, despite opposition from U.S. bishops,” and posted on America, the Jesuit media outlet, appeared to mark a fresh Church dispute over the bill, which the U.S. House of Representatives approved May 17.
And yet the evidence cited in support of this breaking development was scanty, raising questions about whether there was significant opposition to the bishops' position among prominent Catholics.
The Equality Act bars discrimination against LGBTQ Americans by adding “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the definition of “sex” in federal civil rights laws.
“Catholic leaders find themselves on both sides of the debate” over the legislation, the article reported. While the U.S. bishops have opposed the bill, in part, because it threatens the religious freedom of Catholics, “others say it is past time for L.G.B.T. Americans to feel protected in areas of housing, education and employment.”
According to the article, who were the Catholic “leaders” that supported the bill?
One was Sister Simone Campbell, the longtime executive director of Network, the progressive lobby group that has frequently parted ways from the U.S. bishops on life and religious freedom issues. In 2017, Sister Simone attacked the Trump administration’s expansion of the narrow religious exemption from the Health and Human Services’ contraception mandate. She framed the administration’s policy as an assault on “women’s health care,” ignoring the fact that it provided relief to Catholic plaintiffs who were fighting the mandate in court because of their objection to providing coverage of contraception, including contraceptives that act as abortifacients.
Another “leader” was John Gehring, identified as a “contributing editor at Commonweal magazine and the Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life,” a grantee of the Open Society Foundation established by George Soros. Faith in Public Life is a partner organization with Catholics in Alliance, another Soros-funded group. As a March 14 Catholic News Agency story reported, such groups have “engaged in various forms of religious commentary, activist organizing, issue advocacy, and political campaigning.”
In April, Gehring chastised the bishops for moving too quickly to oppose the bill.
Gehring is welcome to his opinions. But to imply that that he is a “Catholic leader” grossly overstates his importance.
Sister Simone is already famous for her past exploits as one of the “nuns on the bus.” But it is hard to find anything newsworthy about her decision to ignore the U.S. bishops’ position on the bill.
That said, the article stirred up memories of the once-robust internal Church battle over the HHS contraceptive mandate that exploded into the public square in 2012.
A widely cited March 2012 America editorial publicly rebuked the U.S. bishops for refusing to accommodate the Obama White House’s narrow exemption for religious employers, and provoked a stinging letter from Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, the bishops’ point man on religious liberty issues.
This time around, as LGBT advocates challenge laws that give religious believers a “license to discriminate,” America issued a cautious editorial that appeared to signal a tactical preference for a less confrontational posture.
Dated May 17, the same day the article about the Equality Act was posted, the editorial focused on a similar battle between LGBT and religious liberty advocates in Texas. “Love, not fear, should guide our conversations on religious freedom and L.G.B.T discrimination,” read the headline.
America did not take a position on the Texas controversy, but suggested that these divisive issues “should be grappled with in our communities and churches, not prematurely adjudicated in courts, legislatures or corporate headquarters.”
The editors did not explain how this dialogue would play out in an already toxic legal and political environment. Catholic hospitals, to take one example, have been sued for refusing to perform gender reassignment surgery.
This litigation provides context for the U.S. bishops’ strong position on the Equality Act.
In a joint statement, five bishops noted that the legislation “exempts itself from the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993,” the federal law that protected Hobby Lobby from complying with the Health and Human Services contraceptive mandate in a 2014 landmark Supreme Court case.
The statement stressed that Catholic teaching affirms the dignity of each person and prohibits “unjust discrimination – including in employment, housing, and services – regardless of characteristics or background.”
But the bishops warned that the bill’s “sex-based nondiscrimination terms would end women’s shelters and many single-sex schools. It would close faith-based foster care and adoption agencies that honor children’s rights to a mother and father. The bill would even act as an abortion mandate. We must pursue justice and equality for anyone denied it.”
Sister Carol Keehan, the well-connected leader of the Catholic Health Association, an influential lobby representing Church-affiliated hospitals and nursing homes, also issued a May 16 statement that registered her organization’s opposition to “the Equality Act, as written.”
The legislation, she noted, “lacks conscience protection language and precludes application of RFRA [Religious Freedom Restoration Act].”
Meanwhile, Jesuit Father James Martin, a leading advocate for LGBT Catholics, tweeted the America news story headline.
And the previous month, Father Martin, who is also an America editor, flagged and quoted Gehring’s Commonweal article for his many Facebook followers:
Why did Catholic bishops oppose the Equality Act? The bill would ensure LGBTQ people get basic protections. One bishop, who requested anonymity, told John Gehring at Commonweal, the bishops’ opposition is based on “a narrow interpretation of worst-case scenarios.” Gehring writes, “The bishops’ letter fails to adequately take into account the real and specific ways in which LGBTQ people face unjust discrimination.”
However, the suggestion that the bishops are obsessed with “worst-case scenarios” is puzzling. A “worst-case scenario” is defined as a “concept in risk management” that helps with “planning for potential disasters” that might occur in the future.
The bishops are not engaged in a paranoid planning exercise. They are dealing with the here and now: Catholic hospitals and foster care agencies have already been forced into court to defend their religious freedom. That’s why Sister Carol opposes the Equality Act. And yet a May 20 Religious News story, “Equality Act Again Pits Catholic Nuns Against Bishops,” by Jesuit Father Tom Reese, a former America editor, still tried to draw a bright red line between the position of Sister Carol and that of the bishops, who refused to “compromise.”
What’s the larger purpose of this curious and rather transparent exercise in cultural/political messaging?
The U.S. Senate is not expected to pass the Equality Act — at least not while the GOP controls that chamber. But those who support anti-discrimination provisions for LGBT Americans can use this time to challenge the need for a robust defense of conscience rights, while advancing their case.
For now, we are seeing evidence of a go-slow strategy, guided by the expectation that the Equality Act or similar legislation will eventually draw strong support from Catholics, including those who have already embraced same-sex unions.