Catholic leaders and organizations had different takes to Monday’s landmark United States Supreme Court decision prohibiting discrimination against gay and transgender employees.
At the heart of the court case, Bostock v. Clayton County, was a dispute over the contemporary application of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which had made it illegal for employers to discriminate against any individual “because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has been actively involved in that dispute since August of 2019, when they filed amicus curiae briefs in the cases that were combined into the Bostock v. Clayton County case. They argued that Title VII “is not fairly read to address sexual orientation, and that such a reading would create serious burdens on religious liberty, speech, association, and other constitutional and statutory values.”
Two months later, as oral arguments began in the case, the heads of three committees of the USCCB issued a joint statement claiming that it “would not only be an interpretive leap away from the language and intent of Title VII, it would attempt to redefine a fundamental element of humanity that is the basis of the family, and would threaten religious liberty.”
However, on Monday the court ruled the other way.
Richard W. Garnett, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, told Crux that “it seems very likely” that the new interpretation of Title VII’s “because of … sex” clause will be “imported into other statues, regulations, etc.”
If this happens, he continued, “religious institutions will have to consider the implications of this new interpretation not only on hiring decisions but on, for example, policies related to universities’ residential-hall practices, sports-eligibility rules, government contracts and research grants, etc.”
Noting that protections for religious institutions’ hiring practices will be sorted out in upcoming Court decisions, Garnett added, “At the very least, it seems clear that a religious institution that considered whether a particular employee or applicant’s sexual orientation or gender identity, or conduct related to sexual orientation or gender identity, was consistent with the institution’s religious mission or identity would be exposed to litigation or enforcement actions.”
Following Monday’s ruling, Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the USCCB, issued a statement expressing his concern “that the U.S. Supreme Court has effectively redefined the legal meaning of ‘sex’ in our nation’s civil rights law,” calling it “an injustice that will have implication in many areas of life.”
“By erasing the beautiful differences and complementary relationship between man and woman, we ignore the glory of God’s creation and harm the human family, the first building block of society,” Gomez continued. “Our sex, whether male or female, is part of God’s plan for creation and for our lives.”
His statement also noted that “every person is made in the image and likeness of God and, without exception, must be treated with dignity, compassion, and respect” and argued that “protecting our neighbors from unjust discrimination does not require redefining human nature.”
Some Catholic voices quickly joined the USCCB in decrying the Court’s decision. Robert P. George, a Catholic law professor with appointments at Princeton University and Harvard Law School, said the Court was legislated from the bench and wounding the rule of law in a Monday blog post.
R.R. Reno, editor of First Things, labeled the decision “a striking display of sophistry” and warned that “Bostock gives the LGBT movement a powerful bulldozer with which to demolish all public expressions of dissent from its agenda.”
Other Catholic leaders and organizations, however, have welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision.
Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, issued a statement calling the ruling a “landmark moment in our work for justice” that “affirms in law what we know to be true spiritually: Everyone has equal dignity and worth.”
“But the struggle for equality isn’t over,” she continued. “LGBTQ+ people, especially LGBTQ+ people of color, cannot access housing, health care, and more. The Senate must pass the Equality Act to address systemic discrimination LGBTQ+ people face every day.”
Jesuit Father James Martin, author of Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity, wrote on social media that “Catholics can rejoice over the SCOTUS ruling, barring discrimination against LGBTQ people in the workplace.”
Citing the Catechism that “every sign of unjust discrimination” should be avoided, Martin asked, “What kind of Catholic would want a gay person to be discriminated against? What kind of Catholic would want their brother or sister who is gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, to be denied an interview, turned down for a job, passed over for a promotion, or fired from their current position, simply because they were LGBTQ?”
Noting that he had worked in human resources for years and witnessed the “brutal discrimination that goes on behind closed doors,” Martin pushed back on one of the USCCB’s central critiques of Bostock.
“And arguments about the Court ‘redefining sex’ are beside the point,” the priest wrote. “These are real-life protections against the real-life dangers that real-life plaintiffs faced because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. In other words, they encountered ‘unjust discrimination’.”
Multiple Catholic universities also made statements via social media affirming the Court’s decision. Denver’s Regis University, for example, took to Twitter to write, “We are gratified that protecting the dignity and humanity of our LGBTQ+ family members is now the law of the land. Regis University is committed to the Jesuit values of equality and inclusion.”
Because the Bostock case was not argued on religious freedom grounds, the Supreme Court’s majority opinion stressed that the intersection of “doctrines protecting religious liberty” with Title VII “are questions for future cases” and noted that “we are also deeply concerned with preserving the promise of the free exercise of religion enshrined in our Constitution.”
The upcoming Supreme Court case Fulton v. City of Philadelphia will review an appeals court ruling that said the city could stop placing children with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s foster care agency because it would not permit same-sex couples to serve as foster parents.
Two other upcoming decisions in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel will address the closely related issue of the breadth of the “ministerial exception” to civil rights laws that exempts religious ministers from anti-discrimination law, which could affect the reach of the Bostock decision into Catholic institutions.