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Does Religious Liberty Mean Bullying Your Own Flock of Believers?

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When the issue of marriage equality is raised, one of the most common objections raised by the anti-LGBT crowd -- and one of the most ironic -- is that it will violate religious liberty.

The most common promulgators of this "religious liberty" argument are the Roman Catholic hierarchy. The most recent Roman Catholic bishop to warn of such "attacks" is Bishop Joseph Tyson, the Catholic bishop of Yakima, Washington. In a speech opposing Referendum 74, which will affirm the marriage equality law passed by elected officials earlier this year, Bishop Tyson says:

Recent attacks on churches, businesses and nonprofit organizations that express their conscientious objection to the redefinition of marriage underscore this danger. Those who uphold families based on the permanent, faithful relationship between a married man and woman as the best environment for raising children already have been accused of hate speech, and the right of religious institutions to freely practice their faith has been abridged.

This argument is not isolated. The Roman Catholic hierarchy has been using similar language in Minnesota, Maryland, Maine, New Jersey and California, just in recent weeks. The imagery is of a church under siege by outside LGBT forces, which are hell bent on destroying the faith of the church.

What is not being shared in these fear mongering speeches is that much of the public's support for LGBT people actually comes from within the Roman Catholic Church. Roman Catholic people, the ones who go to church, who pray, who practice their faith on a daily basis -- these are the ones who support marriage equality. It is faithful Catholics, by more than 70 percent, who believe that civil marriage should be lawful in America.

The Bishops don't acknowledge Catholic supporters of marriage equality. But they are taking swift and punitive actions against them. Just within the past year, we have seen such actions taken against faithful Catholics:
  • Steav Bates-Congdon of North Carolina and Al Fischer of Missouri, were fired from their jobs at Catholic schools. Their offence? Holding weddings with their long-term partners. Both men were openly gay without any objection from their parishes until they prepared to make a deeper commitment to their partners.
  • In 2010, Archbishop John Nienstedt, who is currently leading the effort to pass the anti-marriage equality amendment in Minnesota, told a mother that choosing to support her child over the political position of the Church could endanger her salvation. Archbishop Nienstedt also has threatened any priests who do not support the marriage amendment with termination.
  • Trish Cameron, a straight Catholic school teacher in Moorhead, Minn., wrote in her self-evaluation that she did not always support the Roman Catholic position on issues like the promotion of the anti-marriage equality constitutional amendment, but that she would never express her personal opinions in class. The response? She was fired.
  • Archbishop John Myers of Newark New Jersey said that marriage equality supporters should not receive communion. Similar threats have been made against equality-supporting Catholics in Minnesota and California.
  • Barbara Johnson was denied communion at her own mother's funeral because she was a lesbian. The priest also walked out of the sanctuary while she gave her eulogy for her mother and refused to attend the burial. He has since been removed for abusive behavior toward his colleagues, not for refusing communion.
  • The persecution and condemnation doesn't even stay contained within Roman Catholic circles. Episcopal Bishop Marc Andrus wrote an open letter to the incoming Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, recognizing that the two leaders differ on the issue of marriage equality, but that he hoped that the two would be able to work together. In response, Bishop Andrus was refused seating and literally detained by church personnel at Cordileone's installation service, and was not permitted to be with other ecumenical leaders.
Contrary to the idea that Catholics suffer from outside forces when marriage equality becomes a reality, the Roman Catholic hierarchy is causing undue suffering to LGBT Catholics, and is actually impeding on the religious liberty of those who might support them.

I write this, not as a Catholic, but as a Lutheran, a denomination borne out of frustration by misguided campaigns and grabs of power by the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Luther's critique of the hierarchy's assertion of relevance and control has more than a few parallels to the situation we find ourselves in today. And that gives me hope that not all is lost. Reformation is possible.

The Roman Catholic Church is a powerful institution with the ability to alleviate a lot of the pain and suffering that exists in the world. It is a shame that it is losing its relevance by wasting energy on misguided campaigns like this. Doing so, coupled with the internal persecution of LGBT supporters is only alienating its own believers.

However, I still believe that there is still the ability for the Roman Catholic Church to add a positive contribution to the public LGBT conversation. Catholic lay people are already doing it. They are loving and supporting their fellow Catholics. They are going purple for Spirit Day. They are bringing good news to the least of these in their words and actions. The hierarchy just needs to follow their lead. Then, people will know the love and the grace of God.