This letter to the editor from DignityUSA Executive Director Marianne Duddy-Burke appeared in the January 13, 2017 print issue of National Catholic Reporter. It was written in response to an article by Thomas Reese, SJ entitled “Time to Compromise on Gay Rights and Religious Freedom.”
Well-intentioned but Problematic
I believe Thomas Reese’s recent piece is well-intentioned but promotes some troubling myths about religious liberty, religious exemptions, and the LGBTQ community.
First, there are many LGBTQ people of faith and supporters who firmly support appropriate legal protections for communities of faith. This is not an “us vs. them” issue as Reese’s piece implies. The question is really where the lines are drawn. This is the issue before several courts, where they are determining what positions religiously affiliated institutions can legitimately claim as “ministerial.” Is a food service worker a minister? A math teacher? A nurse?
Secondly, many promoters of expansions of religious exemptions have tried to reduce the issue to wedding cake bakers, florists, and photographers being “forced” to work at same-sex weddings in violation of their religious principles. While Reese acknowledges that there are real dangers for LGBTQ people in being denied employment, fired, or access to vital public services, he undermines this point by including these red herring examples.
The real concerns faced by LGBTQ people and others who object to the expansion of religious exemptions involve being denied access to health care services, housing, employment, and benefits. They are about things like having the only regional hospital refuse to provide accurate and complete information on HIV prevention, contraceptives, family planning, or other reproductive health services even in emergency situations. This concern is significant, as one in every six hospital beds in the US is now run by a Catholic health care agency.
The concerns involve being denied placement of foster or adoptive children, even when found eminently qualified by state standards. They are about anxiety over being fired by a faith-based employer over something posted on your or someone else’s Facebook page, and then reported by someone who finds your “lifestyle” objectionable.
As president of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, Reese is in a position that has great power to shape the public debate on this issue. LGBTQ people certainly respect the rights of all people to practice their faith in ways that do not harm others, but in order to protect ourselves, we cannot be asked to “compromise” on issues that put our health, livelihoods, housing or dignity at risk.
(Duddy-Burke is Executive Director of DignityUSA.)