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Equality Act concerns Catholics in Arlington diocese

First slide

A bill that would amend federal civil rights laws to establish a new classification for gay and transgender rights has sparked concern across the diocese over a long-simmering issue, the intersection of religious liberties and gender ideology — the notion that individuals, not biological sex, determine gender.

In 2019, a Virginia public high school teacher was fired for, he alleges, failing to use a male pronoun when referring to a female student who previously went by a woman’s name. While the French language instructor used the student’s newly adopted, more masculine name, saying "he" or "his" was antithetical to his Christian beliefs.

Last year, the Virginia legislature enacted a law requiring the Virginia Department of Education to promulgate "model policies" for public schools regarding students who identify as the opposite sex. The recently published guidelines, which the Virginia Catholic Conference said "would pit children against their parents when it comes to important questions about sex and gender identity," require all local public school boards to adopt similar policies for the 2021-22 academic year.

Now, the Equality Act, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives Feb. 25 over the objection of Catholic bishops, has underscored that, while it’s been nearly five years since Pope Francis warned of a "global war" against marriage and specifically cited gender ideology as a "great enemy" of these sacramental unions, the debate has only grown more intense.

The Arlington diocese co-sponsored a March 22 webinar about the Equality Act, which it said drew about 1,300 diocesan parishioners and so many viewers nationwide that it overwhelmed the webinar software. In recent weeks, parish bulletins across the diocese have included warnings about the legislation, prompting many to watch the webinar to learn more.

"People are waking up to this issue for sure," said Amy McInerny, director of the diocesan Office of Respect Life. "The priests are engaged. We’re helping people understand that, by virtue of our baptism, we have a responsibility to bring Christ to the culture … Those messages are being heard more and more."

"The feedback I have seen [to the webinar] has been immensely positive," said Robert Vega, a presenter on the webinar, who serves as policy advisor for promotion and defense of marriage at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "People care about these issues but they want to know more and be able to speak to them more.

"I have been greatly encouraged by the dioceses of Arlington and Richmond in their leadership," Vega added, noting that engagement on the USCCB grassroots portal by Virginians contacting their member of Congress was more than triple what he expected for a population that size.

A Christian response

In his 2016 apostolic exhortation "Amoris Laetitia" ("The Joy of Love"), Pope Francis advised Catholics how to empathize with those who may struggle with their sex, a condition referred to as "gender dysphoria," without endorsing transgender surgeries, hormonal treatment or other efforts in which "human identity becomes the choice of the individual" who can "assert themselves as absolute and unquestionable.

"It is one thing to be understanding of human weakness and the complexities of life, and another to accept ideologies that attempt to sunder what are inseparable aspects of reality," he wrote. "Let us not fall into the sin of trying to replace the Creator."

"There are deep human needs of love, understanding of purpose, creation and self-acceptance that are not being met, sometimes with tragic results," Vega said, noting transgender surgeries for females quadrupled between 2016 and 2017 alone. "And so I think that we have to renew our earnest love for others and work to better understand how to help others to love themselves as children of God amid this context."

Threatening religious freedom

Catholic leaders particularly are concerned about the Equality Act’s disregard for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RIFRA, which was enacted under the Clinton administration and typically accepted across partisan lines. Additionally, they say, the broad scope of the proposed legislation is another source of alarm.

Vega cites a litany of bedrock Catholic ministries that may be rolled back or completely shuttered if the Equality Act becomes law. He warned on the webinar how Catholic foster care services would be mandated to support same-sex adoptions; women in crisis shelters would be forced to share showers with men; and certain Catholic facilities could be made to host events that conflict with their faith. At least five Catholic health care facilities have been involved in related litigation, Vega noted. Such cases could increase under the legislation, which carries steep fines for violations.

Women’s rights

Additionally, Catholic leaders fear that provisions intended to support transgender individuals would set back the interests of women and erode protections established over many decades.

"When gender identity is privileged over biological sex, females lose. It’s that simple," Mary Hasson, the Kate O’Beirne Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a parishioner of St. Veronica Church in Chantilly, argued in her March 17 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Hasson’s center closely tracks gender ideology issues as part of its Person and Identity Project. On the diocesan webinar, she warned the Equality Act would harm women in three areas. Their identity would suffer as the female sex is erased from law and replaced with gender self-identification. The safety of shared spaces such as locker rooms would be compromised by admitting men who identify as women. And athletic scholarships and other opportunities would diminish as biological males gain eligibility.

The big picture

The Equality Act faces an uncertain outlook in the U.S. Senate, where it is supported by Virginia’s senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine. Yet, Hasson and others say, it is just one part of a much broader agenda pushed by transgender advocates. Through executive orders and other actions, the Biden administration has aggressively sought to advance much of it. Corporate policies and state laws are another source of concern.

"While the Equality Act is a huge threat, it's most important to help people see the nature of the threat because even if the Equality Act is defeated, we will (and are) seeing many of the same problems already," Hasson said.

The recent Virginia model policies for schools, for instance, was criticized by the VCC for undermining both "parents’ involvement in the life of their children at school" and "the bodily privacy and safety of all students," such as by forcing female students to share locker rooms and showers with boys who self-identify as girls. At the local public school board level, such as in Loudoun County, some parents are weighing in on the proposed implementation policies.

"If these proposed policies and guidance go into effect, the state of Virginia will allow public school personnel across the state to keep parents in the dark about their child’s transgender behavior while at school, if the child so requests," said Susan Muskett, who as president of Pro-Family Women was a presenter on the diocesan webinar and is a parishioner of the Cathedral of St. Thomas More. "This is a direct affront to the right of Christian parents (and all parents) to direct the upbringing of their children in line with the principles of their faith."

"The good news is that this is a great time to evangelize," Hasson said. "The need is great, God’s power is infinite. So, let’s open our hearts and go out to all the nations."

Schweers can be reached at editorial@catholicherald.com.

Find out more

For resources for Catholics on gender ideology, go to Arlingtondiocese.org/equalityact: Resources for Catholics, including the diocesan webinar, instructions to contact Congress, and links to the stories of "detransitioners," or those who regretted sex-change interventions and reverted back to their biological gender.

Personandidentity.com: Material for parents, teachers and parishes and a terminology section that explains different terms.

USCCB.org/equality-act: Examples of the Equality Act’s threats to religious liberty, as well as letters and articles.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021