Mountain State Catholic Social Justice Group Cites Church Teaching for Opposing ‘West Virginia Religious Freedom Restoration Act’

Contradicting the official stance of the West Virginia Catholic Diocese, state chapter of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia calls bill a ‘license to discriminate’ against sexual minorities

SPENCER, W.Va. – The West Virginia chapter of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA), an Appalachian Catholic social justice organization based here, has released a statement opposing West Virginia House Bill 4012, the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The bill, which is scheduled for a vote as early as Thursday, would lead to state sanctioned religious-based bigotry against those in the LGBT community, according to the CCA.

CCA Coordinator Jeannie Kirkhope said, “We join with diverse critics of this legislation who fear that the bill would provide religious groups, businesses, and individuals with the ability to discriminate against sexual minorities and others on the grounds of ‘religious freedom.’”

The CCA opposition contradicts the official stance of the diocese – which includes all of West Virginia, though Kirkhope shared, “CCA engaged in dialogue with representatives of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston to better understand the diocese’s public support for the bill.”

Despite that outreach, the CCA decided to publicly oppose the bill. Michael Iafrate, chair of the CCA Board of Directors and the author of the organization’s recently released People’s Pastoral, explained, “In urging opposition to the bill, the CCA statement cites the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on the preferential option for the poor and marginalized, the “Catechism of the Catholic Church’s” teaching opposing discrimination against gay and lesbian people (no. 2358), and the experience of marginalized people in states where similar laws have passed.”

The pastoral is guided by the concept of “The magisterium of the poor and the earth” – simply meaning that the people, too, speak with the same authority as the church’s leadership regarding the vital issues of the day. In the pastoral, Iafrate identified the challenges to the LGBT community in the pastoral, writing, “Some of fiercest hostility comes from people motivated by Christian teachings.”

In a statement regarding House Bill 4012, Kirkhope and Iafrate said, in part:

We appreciate the background of 1993 federal act with the same name, and the history leading up to it, with its pertinence to protecting Native American sacred lands and religious practices from governmental infringement … However, the primary motivation behind West Virginia’s bill # 4012, and others like it, seems not to be the protection of legitimate religious exercises, but securing the ability of religious groups to discriminate against marginalized populations on the basis of religious convictions. As CCA’s People’s Pastoral states, ‘[W]e must honestly acknowledge that even mainstream churches have served as havens of discrimination and hatred’ (p. 24).

“We oppose the bill because, first, we see no need for religious freedom to be ‘restored’ in West Virginia because, as a fundamental value written into the U.S. Constitution and protected by law, it is a freedom which has never been lost here …

“In addition, HB 4012 would be detrimental for the economy of the mountain state when it is already struggling with a lack of economic diversity due to the dominance of the extractive industry … This is why even West Virginia’s largest industries are opposed to HB 4012 ….

“Finally, Catholics are called by God to oppose discrimination in all of its forms. No religious conviction justifies our treatment of anyone as a second-class citizen.  All are made in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, religious freedom does not trump civil rights, as both are important and should be protected equally …

“Our Roman Catholic Church is one of the most powerful institutions in the nation and the state of West Virginia, commanding a tremendous amount of wealth and influence. It also teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman. Whereas the First Amendment protects our Church’s privilege and teaching, we do not believe the legalization of gay marriage threatens either. We cannot claim social victimization, thus, reinforcement for freedom of religion by a state law is not necessary.

“We take issue with this bill, and the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston’s support of it, because the use of our privilege to secure our own interests would endanger the civil rights of those most excluded in our midst. Roman Catholicism has historically fallen short in practicing equality and the protection of the dignity of the human person especially when that person has happened to be female or has had a sexual orientation other than that of the majority …

“Regardless of any stance on gay marriage, CCA, along with many other West Virginia Catholics, stands with women, our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, and all victims of discrimination, especially those who are targeted in the name of religion. Catholics can proudly and confidently demonstrate faithfulness to church teaching on discrimination precisely by opposing this bill. As one of our members who advocates for youth said, ‘We don’t need [HB 4012] and, on a very practical level, it would make it easier for people to make gay rural kids’ lives hell.’

“For these reasons, Catholic Committee of Appalachia says ‘No’ to HB 4012 on behalf the vulnerable and excluded people in our Diocese who would be most adversely affected if this bill were to pass: those facing joblessness, women, children and the LGBT community.”

 About the Catholic Committee of Appalachia

Since 1970, the Catholic Committee of Appalachia has existed to serve Appalachia, her poor and the entire web of creation. Mountaintop removal, labor, private prison development, sustainable lifestyles and communities, poverty, health, clean water, racism and climate change are among those issues which CCA has addressed. CCA has taken responsibility for the organization and ongoing promulgation of two groundbreaking pastoral letters of the Catholic Bishops of Appalachia, “This Land is Home to Me” (1975) and “At Home in the Web of Life” (1995). It just published its third People’s Pastoral, “The Telling Takes Us Home: Taking Our Place in the Stories that Shape Us.”

© Appalachian Chronicle, 2016

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Related Links

Catholic Committee of Appalachia

CCA Statement in Opposition to W.Va. House Bill 4012

House Bill 4012: West Virginia Religious Freedom Restoration Act

CCA People’s Pastoral


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