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December 20, 2015

Civil rights and LGBT interests: complex issues

Bishop Timothy Doherty

Most readers should be aware of civil rights proposals for the session of the Indiana General Assembly that starts with the new year. Bishop Timothy L. Doherty responds to some questions:

It is unfortunate that various discussions have tightly linked religious liberty and rights sought for different sexual identities or orientations. Why?

Because some people want us to believe that rights are a finite quantity, and that what one group wins, another loses. It is unsettling that anyone would draft a law that changes my right to religious public practice into an “exemption,” as if my civic citizenship is less than equal to others.

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What have the bishops been saying?

Most dioceses have their own newspapers and Web sites. Our positions about respecting personal dignity are well known. Our teachings on marriage and sexuality are known. The Web sites for Catholic News Service and for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops catalog years of commentary on social issues. The articles mainly advocate for the Church’s freedom to operate. In other words, the literature upholds our own interests, and does not suggest that other points of view be suppressed.

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Don’t you think your timing is peculiar? After all, this is Advent going into the Christmas season in January.

It may feel odd, but the legislature will be running full speed after the first of the year. The Indiana bishops and the Indiana Catholic Conference office are engaged as real things are happening.

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Is the expectation that bishops prevail upon legislators tinged with the old clericalism?

In a way, yes. The Second Vatican Council was wonderful in teaching that the laity has a role to play in Church and government. The “let Father do it” attitude is a rejection of personal responsibility. Votes are what prevails in civil government. Bishops may lead with ideas, but Catholics together carry votes that are influential in representative government. One can only trust that people will vote with a correctly formed conscience, which is an obligation and a right.

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Why don’t we hear Sunday Mass sermons about all the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning) conversation?

Long experience proves that two subjects are misheard (if not miscommunicated) from the pulpit: sexuality and parish finances. Written presentations in bulletins or the diocesan newspaper provide a chance for everyone to see the same ideas, no matter which Masses they attend. The purpose of the homily at Mass, while wide, cannot provide detailed teaching on everything, or be appropriate or comprehensible to children. The Mass is not like a railroad locomotive; you just can’t keep adding cars and freight. (This also goes for announcements or guest speakers at the end of Mass.) The social discussions on these matters have been evolving for 10 or 20 years in the media and legislatures. No 10- or 20- minute homily will “catch up” people who haven’t been following these tremendously important developments.

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Can’t you put out a single-page position paper to Catholics about upcoming legislation?

The information that a pastor needs may well be different from what a parent needs, or from what the diocese needs as an employer. Earlier in 2015, the wording of certain bills changed regularly. The positive or critical statements that I send to the Moment on a Monday may not match a bill’s changed content by the time the paper is delivered to you later in the week. And things happen fast. For example, the Indiana RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act) “fix” became available to us at 11:35 p.m. on a Thursday, and was voted and signed the next morning, Good Friday. In this instance, we had no opportunity to write or publish a considered opinion.

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Does the Diocese of Lafayette-in-Indiana ever consider the argument by some leaders of large businesses that Indiana needs expanded, even if not very well defined, protections for “sexual orientation, gender identity (SOGI)”?

People forget that the Church and Catholic-sponsored institutions of Indiana are themselves significant employers. So we are not dismissive of other people’s viewpoints. At the same time, I propose that my viewpoint also represents valued institutions and reasoning that cannot be dismissed as sectarian doctrine.

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It is a fact that legislation is being proposed to prevent harm to certain people. Certainly we can support the rule “do no harm” which is part of the Catholic moral tradition. So, on what do you base your reservations? Can you explain what you want considered in the legislative process regarding what, at the moment, is the Holdman bill to include SOGI civil rights protections?

Please understand that I can expect that my reasoned concerns be publicly acknowledged within the legislative process. This is not the same as my denying others an opportunity to place their concerns before legislators. That is not proper to me as a bishop or citizen. Let me list some considerations that, I think, good legislation accounts for:

1) The concern for religious liberty, the right to behave in accord with my faith in public. The Founding Fathers and framers of the state constitution knew that liberty is not restricted to the religious worship done behind four walls.

2) As a religious employer, I have to be able to “hire for mission” key people who believe and live the Catholic faith. Administrators, managers, school teachers each have a role, and the line between mission and personal life, language and behavior exists, but does not allow for public contradiction. The melding of roles is also known in the lives of judges and military officers and, increasingly, professional athletes.

3) The lack of statutory definition of the terms “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.” Politics and trends affect the definition of these things. At last check, Facebook lists 58 gender identities (depending on which source you read) with space for customizable additions. A good law deals in things that are measurable and penalties that are enforceable. It is not moralizing to ask what an employer’s or school’s obligations might be while definitions remain ambiguous.

4) Some of the present draft language empowers the state’s civil rights commission to shape the regulation and interpretation of the newly worded rights. The commissioners are not elected officials, nor are the consultants that they legally are empowered to employ. You might recall that when the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) passed the Congress in 1996, it consisted of about six pages. Government regulators followed with 5,000 pages of rules when the law took effect. That kind of history should make us more humble about what we vote into law. In part, those regulations are why many physicians look at their computers and not us when we visit clinics.

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Bishop, why would you decline to endorse a civil rights law that seeks to reduce harm to other people?

First, I have not seen the final wording of legislation that will come to the floor at the Statehouse, so a judgment may be premature. Second, and more importantly, certain rights language implies endorsement not only of status, but of behavior. I cannot endorse anything that goes against the Ten Commandments or marriage properly understood as between one man and one woman. What laws — and human respect and charity — may require of me going forward remain to be seen.

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