A controversy over transgender rights at schools and public facilities in the United States that’s been dubbed the “bathroom wars” has drawn varied Catholic responses, with bishops expressing concern over a trio of disputed government actions at the local, state and federal level, and a Catholic gay rights group supporting increased access for transgender people.
The epicenter of what commentators have called the latest salvo in the culture wars has unfolded in North Carolina, where the Charlotte City Council in February passed an ordinance that prohibited barring transgender people from using a bathroom or locker room that corresponds with the gender with which they identify.
North Carolina’s Catholic bishops issued a statement opposing that measure and urging the state’s legislature to overturn it, saying it did not serve the common good because it undermined public safety and did not protect the rights of religious institutions that opposed the action.
“The recent decision by the City of Charlotte to allow transgendered individuals access to whichever place of public accommodation they wish, including bathrooms and locker rooms, strikes at the very responsibility government has in ensuring public spaces are safe and secure,” said the statement issued jointly by Raleigh Bishop Michael F. Burbidge and Charlotte Bishop Peter J. Jugis.
The bishops noted, “This issue is principally about safety. Beginning in April, in the City of Charlotte, any man will be able to walk into a women’s locker room without recourse, so long as he claims a female sexual identity.”
“That same man could follow a child into an opposite sex bathroom,” the bishops said. “While this poses obvious safety issues, this violates diocesan policies associated with our Safe Environment programs.”
In March, the North Carolina state legislature in a special one-day session passed a law signed by Gov. Pat McGrory that undid the Charlotte bathroom ordinance, but critics said it also nullified measures across the state aimed at protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people from being discriminated against in the workplace or in business matters.
House Bill 2, like the Charlotte City Council measure that precipitated it, unleashed a firestorm of criticism, with the federal government threatening to withhold billions of dollars in education and other aid to the state, businesses halting planned expansions there and threatening to pull out of the state, groups including the ACLU filing lawsuits against the measure, and rock stars including Bruce Springsteen canceling concerts there.
On May 6, Raleigh’s bishop expressed opposition to the state legislature’s attempted corrective action, saying, “After prayerful consideration and thorough review, and following various legal interpretations regarding the real impact of HB2, I believe another remedy to the unfortunate situation created by the Charlotte ordinance and HB2 should be considered, whether that be legislation or some other measure.”
The bishop, whose diocese includes North Carolina’s state capital, said he hoped that any legislation or measure addressing those sensitive issues would defend human dignity, avoid bigotry, respect religious liberty and be discussed in a respectful manner.
Burbidge also addressed the pastoral side of the controversy, saying, “No person should feel as though they are unwelcome in our communities of faith. The priests of this diocese, myself included, remain committed to speaking with anyone who has concerns about how we operate or what we believe.”
“This applies regardless of one’s gender or gender identity,” Burbidge said. “All people are made in the image and likeness of God as man and woman, and we stand ready to continue accompanying all people in their faith walk.”
The bishop said the issue involved religious liberty, because church institutions should be free to operate according to their beliefs.
“The common sense use of gender specific multi-stall bathrooms for parishes and Catholic schools throughout eastern N.C. reflects reasonable boundaries, especially for youth and young people. How individual organizations wish to operate should be respected; especially religious organizations, churches and schools,” he said.
Responding to a request from Crux for further comment, Billy Atwell, director of communications for the Diocese of Raleigh, said in an email, “Given the controversy and various legal interpretations of the true impact of HB2, Bishop Burbidge is asking that another simpler resolution to the problems caused by the Charlotte ordinance be considered.”
In mid-May, the federal government entered the fray, deepening the seismic rifts of what to that point had not been a major issue across the country.
Officials from the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education issued a directive saying, “When a school provides sex-segregated activities and facilities, transgender students must be allowed to participate in such activities and access such facilities consistent with their gender identity.”
The letter to public school officials said that Title IX prohibits discrimination in educational programs and activities operated by recipients of federal financial aid.
“This prohibition encompasses discrimination based on student’s gender identity, including discrimination based on a student’s transgender status,” the directive said.
The federal action likewise triggered an earthquake of controversy. The Washington Post reported that by May 26, 11 states had filed lawsuits challenging the Obama administration’s guidance to schools regarding transgender students’ access to facilities and programs.
Three days after the federal directive, two bishops chairing the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ committees on family life and education issued a statement blasting the government action, saying, “The guidance issued May 13 by the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education that treats ‘a student’s gender identity as the student’s sex’ is deeply disturbing.”
The statement from Buffalo Bishop Richard Malone, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, and Omaha Archbishop George Lucas, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Catholic Education, quoted Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation on marriage and family life.
“The (federal) guidance fails to address a number of important concerns and contradicts a basic understanding of human formation so well expressed by Pope Francis: that ‘the young need to be helped to accept their own body as it was created’,” they wrote.
Addressing the federal government’s response to the transgender controversy, the bishops said, “Children, youth, and parents in these difficult situations deserve compassion, sensitivity, and respect.”
“All of these can be expressed without infringing on legitimate concerns about privacy and security on the part of the other young students and parents,” they said.
“The federal regulatory guidance issued on May 13 does not even attempt to achieve this balance. It unfortunately does not respect the ongoing political discussion at the state and local levels and in Congress, or the broader cultural discussion, about how best to address these sensitive issues.”
“Rather,” the bishops said, “the guidance short-circuits those discussions entirely.”
The bishops encouraged the government to pursue “more just and compassionate approaches and policies in this sensitive area, in order to serve the good of all students and parents, as well as the common good.”
North Carolina’s bishops echoed those concerns in statements posted on their diocesan websites, with Burbidge characterizing the directive from the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education as “an attempt to coerce the public into embracing the federal government’s position regarding sexual identity.”
He urged people in his diocese to “pray that the federal government might withdraw this imposition on the public education system.”
The National Catholic Educational Association has not yet weighed in on the controversy, but DignityUSA, an organization of Catholics that advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, criticized the USCCB statement, saying it demonstrated a lack of understanding for what transgender children and their families experience.
“Transgender children and their families often deal with very challenging situations every single day. Gym class, using a bathroom, or simply walking down a hallway are often uncomfortable and even unsafe for many transgender students,” Marianne Duddy-Burke, DignityUSA’s executive director, said in the statement.
The DignityUSA leader added, “We believe, as do many Catholics, that our transgender kin reflect the immensity and diversity of God’s creativity. They challenge us to humbly re-examine traditional beliefs about sex, gender, identity, and human relationships, and to acknowledge the limitations of our current understanding in these areas.”
“We urge the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to engage in dialogue with transgender youth and adults, as well as their families, so they can better understand the pastoral and practical needs of these communities,” she said.
Following three successive government actions that arguably made a complex social situation even more complicated, North Carolina – the Tar Heel State – and perhaps a growing number of states across the country, now seem mired in a difficult issue with no easy legislative remedy.
But for Church officials, the unfolding issue also has a pastoral dimension that touches on the human dignity of transgender people, a safe environment for children, and the religious liberty of Catholic institutions to operate in a manner that reflects Church teaching.