‘Preferred Pronouns,’ ‘Misgendering’ and Religious Freedom
COMMENTARY: Those who believe it is wrong to deny the biological sex that God has assigned a human being should brace themselves for the legal battles that lie ahead.
One of the new mortal sins in the secular catechism is “misgendering.” Five years ago the term was unknown, except to a few transgender rights activists. Now we all know what it means: referring to someone born a woman as “she” or “her” if she identifies as a man, and someone born a man as “he” or “him" if he has decided that he is a woman.
Gender ideologues and their allies in federal and state government have latched on to language as a highly effective way of imposing a “gender affirming” society on us. Catholics and others who believe it is wrong to deny the biological sex that God has assigned a human being should brace themselves for the legal battles that lie ahead.
Misgendering is not only a sin for these ideologues, it is an easy chance to weaponize America’s social safety net. For example, gender ideologues have a stronghold at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) — and this is really alarming, because they’re taking aim at children in foster care.
HHS has proposed a new rule requiring state child welfare agencies to ensure that each child in their care who identifies as LGBTQ+ receives “a safe and appropriate placement and services.” The rule insists that providers ensure “an environment free of hostility, mistreatment, or abuse based on the child’s LGBTQI+ status.” That’s reasonable. But look at what comes next.
The rule adds that “to be considered a safe and appropriate placement, a provider is expected to utilize the child’s identified pronouns, chosen name, and allow the child to dress in an age-appropriate manner that the child believes reflects their self-identified gender identity and expression.”
Faced with this madness, it’s reassuring that we can look to some of our bishops for clarity. Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia, has written an impressive pastoral letter addressing gender ideology. He writes that “the claim to ‘be transgender’ or the desire to seek ‘transition’ rests on a mistaken view of the human person, rejects the body as a gift from God, and leads to grave harm. To affirm someone in an identity at odds with biological sex … is to mislead that person.”
In the case of children suffering gender dysphoria, Bishop Burbidge’s letter is unequivocal:
“Under no circumstances should parents seek ‘gender-affirming’ therapy for their children, as it is fundamentally incompatible with the truth of the human person. ... They should not seek, encourage, or approve any counseling or medical procedures that would confirm mistaken understandings of human sexuality and identity, or lead to (often irreversible) bodily mutilation.”
Indeed. “Mutilation” is a precisely accurate term in these circumstances; it’s admirable that a bishop has the courage to employ it.
The HHS’ proposed rule also demands that when an agency is “placing a transgender, gender non-conforming, and intersex child with a safe and appropriate provider that is a sex segregated child-care institution, they must make placements consistent with the child’s self-identified gender identity.” Which, of course, may change from one week to the next, given how unpredictable children are.
Notice that no mention is made of the safety and well-being of children who are housed with a peer of the opposite biological sex. What could possibly go wrong?
A significant proportion of foster parents say they are motivated to do their work because of their faith. And, of those, more than 80% attribute their success in fostering to the support of their faith.
You would think, then, that in responding to our nation’s foster care crisis HHS would recognize the contributions made by religious Americans. Of course, HHS claims that it “takes seriously its obligations to comply with the Constitution and federal laws that support and protect religious exercise and freedom of conscience.”
Its plans suggest otherwise. We could be looking at the widespread rejection of potential foster families who won’t assent to government-compelled speech because they hold sincere religious beliefs about the nature of human sexuality. And that would be pure religious discrimination as well as an affront to the free speech guarantee.
But there’s more. HHS has also imposed a transgender pronoun mandate on its 80,000 employees, ordering them to affirm any co-worker’s self-proclaimed gender identity and preferred pronouns. As it told them in an email:
“All employees should be addressed [by] the names and pronouns they use to describe themselves.”
And then there is the current attempt to force gender ideology on America’s workforce. Just look at proposed guidance coming from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency in charge of investigating complaints of employment discrimination in the workplace that wants to make adherence to traditional pronouns a form of unlawful workplace harassment. Such harassment includes the “intentional and repeated use of a name or pronoun inconsistent with the individual’s gender identity (misgendering).”
Employers and employees with traditional religious beliefs grounded in biological reality who are unwilling to adopt “preferred pronouns” will have no defense. Obviously, this is a blatant disregard for religious freedom and probably wouldn’t stand up in court when challenged. But you never know these days. In the meantime, don’t be surprised to see American businesses imposing their own “civility codes” in order to avoid problems with the feds.
This new obsession with the language of gender ideology is not limited to the federal government. Some state officials want to get in on the game. Take, for instance, Michigan state courts. Last month, a divided Michigan Supreme Court approved a new rule that allows attorneys to include their preferred forms of address or pronouns in the captions of court documents and requires judges to use those terms “or other respectful means” when referring to those attorneys either in court or in documents.
After the plan was announced last January, the Diocese of Lansing submitted a thorough and thoughtful comment in opposition that lays out the many pitfalls of this proposed change:
“The Diocese submits this comment to proposed amendment to Rule 1.109 out of concern for Michigan’s judicial system — a system which above all must be rooted in truth — and concern for freedom of religion, conscience, and speech for Catholics, Christians, other religious believers, and all who object to gender ideology.”
Let’s not forget that the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, the intermediate federal appeals court whose decisions are binding in Michigan, previously ruled in favor of a longtime college professor at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio, who was disciplined for refusing to refer to a student using pronouns that did not correspond to the student’s biological sex. The court was particularly troubled by “a requirement that a professor affirmatively change his speech to recognize a person’s transgender identity.”
A similar concern was expressed this past summer by the Supreme Court in 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, a case involving a Christian wedding website designer in Colorado who does not want to create websites for same-sex wedding ceremonies. Noting the importance of public accommodation laws, the court nonetheless affirmed long-standing precedent against government-compelled speech.
“Laws along these lines have done much to secure the civil rights of all Americans,” wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch for a 6-3 majority. “But in this particular case Colorado does not just seek to ensure the sale of goods and services on equal terms. It seeks to use the law to compel an individual to create speech she does not believe.”
Undeterred, certain public officials are brazenly imposing gender ideology wherever they can. As we’ve seen, their weapon of choice is the strange lexicon of “preferred pronouns.” This imposition of ideology will wreak havoc in the workplace, social services such as our overwhelmed foster care system, and even in our courts. Our Catholic response, grounded in truth and charity, must be to resist.