The case for religious freedom has been debated ad nauseam since its inception and ratification into law in December 1791. There are some who believe it to be the "First, Most Cherished Freedom" as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops proclaimed in their response to President Obama's HHS Mandate. It is often used to defend unpopular or outrageous beliefs held in the name of religion- and invoked as a trump card in any disagreement over inflammatory comments or actions. Indeed, we have both frequently evoked our right to free exercise of speech and religion to gently remind those who disagree with us that the benefit of First Amendment protections is the dialogue that results from conflicting points of view. However, what is unacceptable in all cases is the use of the First Amendment as a means to attack, discriminate, and dehumanize another person and/or group of persons; discrimination and vitriol wrapped in a veil of faith is still vitriol. After all the Bill of Rights was meant to supplement the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, not replace them. Regardless of any amendment, the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all citizens remain the foundation of our free society.
As a result of lacking University policy this age old debate has been unfolding on the campus of the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. for the last several weeks and students have had enough. The Archdiocese of Washington assigned a Roman Catholic priest, Greg Shaffer, to the Newman Catholic Student Center at GW. He has a long history of inflammatory comments towards LGBT people in his homilies and fostering a homophobic atmosphere amongst Catholics, and continued his persecution of the LGBT Community last week. While normally a sense of professional respect is observed - as neither of us are Roman Catholic priests- the idea that the Newman Center is entitled to do and believe as it pleases was violated when comments were published on his personal blog and in the student newspaper saying:
"Every single rational person knows that sexual relationships between persons of the same sex are unnatural and immoral. They know it in their hearts," Shaffer wrote. "And, yet, they go against what their hearts tell them when they try to argue for same-sex relationships and 'gay marriage.'"
While this is simply a taste of the language and sentiments that permeate the Newman Catholic Student Center, the atmosphere spreads to affect those who do not even identify with the center, faith, or seek Father Greg for spiritual advice in the wider University community.
Let us be clear, we are not attacking the Roman Catholic Church. We are by no means asking the Church to change its views on same-sex marriage, nor are we seeking validation or celebration of our sexuality by the Church, or anyone for that matter.
What we ask is to be treated with dignity and respect at our university. We ask that the Chaplain of the George Washington University Newman Catholic Student Center, a man charged with the pastoral care of students by a non-university entity, treat each of us with equal love and value. We ask that our university provide a safe and welcoming environment for every student.
Can we not agree that our students should be safe in schools and that all bullying should be stopped? Furthermore, as an institution dedicated to acceptance and inclusion should GW not be called to take steps to stop homophobic bullying along with all other forms of bullying? We might not all agree about full celebration and inclusion of LGBT civil rights, but we can all agree that bullying should be considered unacceptable, especially from our spiritual leaders.
We have been criticized for waging an intolerant attack on civil liberties by speaking out against a religious leader for espousing discrimination and anti-LGBT rhetoric. Hate in God's name is hate, not religion.
To those who have lambasted us, know only that we will not cease to push back against anyone who wishes to deny us human dignity. We are going to argue with people who claim to do so based on religious beliefs truly based in a tradition of unfounded homophobia. We are going to stand up to people who think that their religious beliefs have constitutional standing in denying us the human dignity and respect we deserve.
It is not remotely accurate to say that we are intolerant of people who see things differently than us just because we're fighting against their claims.
We urge Father Greg and the Newman Center to look at Matthew 23:23, where Jesus says to the Pharisees, "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices--mint, dill, and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former." The hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church is so focused on "protecting" marriage that they have ignored Christ's message of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Christ tells us that among faith, hope, and love, the greatest of these is love.
Mother Teresa reminds us, "If you judge people, you have no time to love them." Pope John Paul II said, "You are priests, not social or political leaders. Let us not be under the illusion that we are serving the Gospel through an exaggerated interest in the wide field of temporal problems." Love is at the core of Catholicism, not judgment. The Gospel is at the core of Catholicism, not sex.
It is our prayer that all who do work in the name of God reflect on their ministry, and turn not to the bully pulpit, but rather to the love of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Gospels. And remember, the greatest of these is love.