Fifty years ago, the only Catholic President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, stressed the importance of separating church and state, imagining a nation “where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials.” Fast forward to the present where Rick Santorum — also Catholic — feels that mentality makes him throw up, and it’s clear how much power the Catholic Hierarchy is now exerting over the debate about equality. The Church’s leadership has been particularly explicit on one particular issue, which is that it refuses to exist simultaneously in a universe with marriage equality for same-sex couples.
Now, as conservative groups like the Catholic Church are using arguments “religious liberty” more than ever, it’s important to look at just how they exercise that liberty in the public square, particularly in public-subsidized services and political campaigns. After all, freedom from religious-based government is why many groups originally emigrated to the Americas. Even though American Catholics largely support equality, the Church’s hierarchy prioritizes stigmatizing same-sex families at all levels of government over its own charitable works.
NATIONAL: The leadership of the Catholic Church — not the membership — represents one of the chief opponents of marriage equality nationwide, raising funds that rival those contributed by evangelical and conservative protestant groups in state fights like Minnesota and Maine. In addition, plenty of evidence confirms that the National Organization for Marriage, which spends millions of dollars fighting marriage equality across the country, is a Catholic organization. This past November, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops launched a new anti-gay campaign called, “Marriage: Unique For A Reason,” committing to the issue as a national priority. And complementing Rick Santorum’s constant Catholic messaging on social issues, Newt Gingrich has pledged to create a commission defending the ability of churches and church-run programs (schools, hospitals, charities, etc.) to discriminate against same-sex couples at will.
STATE: At the state level, the Church hierarchy exhibits its most outlandish demands for the government to subsidize its discrimination against same-sex couples, a position Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum all support. State taxpayer funds support numerous charitable efforts the Church offers, including adoption services, shelters, hospitals, and schools. When faced with the expectation of having to recognize and serve same-sex couples if they expect continued subsidy, Catholic leaders threaten to cease all services entirely Here are a few examples:
- Catholic Charities of Colorado has threatened to shut down if civil unions legislation passes, even though the bill contains a provision that explicitly exempts it from having to serve same-sex couples.
- Catholic Charities of Illinois sued for the right to discriminate against couples in civil unions while continuing to receive state subsidies for adoption services, but the courts ruled the state had no obligation to maintain its contracts. The agencies have since transferred their cases to secular organizations, but Republicans in the state legislature are still intent on creating an exception for the discrimination.
- Catholic leadership’s opposition to marriage equality in Rhode Island was such that the resulting civil unions law was written with religious exemptions so severe that any Catholic hospital or charity can refuse to acknowledge civil unions even exist.
- Catholic Charities of Washington, DC shut down all its adoption and foster care services to avoid having to place children with married same-sex couples. They also stopped offering spousal benefits to employees — even the heterosexual ones — lest they have to offer them to same-sex partners as well.
- The Catholic Diocese of Portland, Maine shut down a homeless shelter, claiming it violated its grant agreement by opposing 2009’s Question One, which banned same-sex marriage.
- Various dioceses, including in Maine, Connecticut, and Minnesota, continue to expand the Church’s Courage ministry, which preaches only two choices for gays and lesbians to avoid going to Hell: live a life of chastity or undergo harmful, ineffective ex-gay therapy.
LOCAL: Even within communities, the Church’s leadership takes measures to stigmatize same-sex couples. Consider the cases of Al Fischer, who taught music at St. Ann Catholic School in St. Louis, and Steav Bates-Congdon, who was music director for the largest Catholic congregation in North Carolina. In both cases, they were openly gay and had partners of more than 20 years. Those partners attended events and were no secret to the communities in which they worked. But for both Fischer and Bates-Congdon, upon marrying their partners in New York, their respective dioceses summarily fired them for violating the Catholic faith — firings which are perfectly legal but nonetheless ostracize and stigmatize the gay community.
Given that Catholic voters support marriage equality at rates far exceeding the general public, it is problematic how much influence the Catholic hierarchy exerts over the fate of same-sex couples. The bishops and Catholic candidates like Santorum and Gingrich do not speak for any significant population of the United States — they merely channel the anti-gay talking points sent down from the Vatican. Given Catholic leadership continues to play a significant role in marriage fights in Minnesota, Maryland, Washington, Maine, and North Carolina, in addition to the presidential race, it’s important to keep in mind that they are not motivated by compassion for gay people. They strive for a blinded world in which the fruitful lives of same-sex families do not even exist.