The Michigan Catholic Conference has contributed nearly $240,000 to a campaign committee opposing a business-backed initiative to expand Michigan’s civil rights law to include protections for LGBTQ individuals.
Campaign finance reports filed on Monday show the Lansing-based Michigan Catholic Conference, which bills itself as “the official voice of the Catholic Church in Michigan on matters of public policy,” has made $238,874.80 in direct and in-kind contributions to Citizens for Equality, Fairness and Justice, an organization formed in April that has actively opposed the LGBTQ initiative. The MCC made up nearly all of the committee’s $204,175 in direct contributions this funding cycle.
The Fair and Equal Michigan campaign launched the ballot initiative to expand Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976 to enshrine protections in employment and public accommodations for LGBTQ individuals and ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The Michigan Board of State Canvassers voted unanimously on Monday to reject Fair and Equal Michigan’s petition signatures, claiming the campaign didn’t have enough valid signatures to advance the proposal.
Fair and Equal Michigan officials have vowed to appeal the Board of Canvassers’ vote to the state Court of Appeals.
The Fair and Equal Michigan campaign has received widespread support from some of Michigan’s largest employers, including Consumers Energy, DTE Energy, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and General Motors, to name a few. Executives have said expanding the civil rights law is not only a human rights issue, but also a key component to attracting and retaining talent to the state.
Earlier this year, Citizens for Equality, Fairness and Justice filed a challenge against Fair and Equal Michigan before the Board of State Canvassers, as Michigan Advance previously reported. The newly formed committee had ties to attorneys who had previously fought LGBTQ measures, but it was unclear at the time who was funding the organization.
Campaign finance reports show the Michigan Catholic Conference directly contributed $200,000 to Citizens for Equality, Fairness and Justice on July 2, and gave another $38,874.80 in in-kind donations on July 7. The committee has also received $3,000 from issue advocacy group Michigan Future First, and $1,000 from the Lansing-based Michigan Family Forum. The committee reported $80,389.55 in expenditures, leaving nearly $124,000 in cash on hand.
Citizens for Equality, Fairness and Justice Treasurer Daniel Wholihan declined to comment for this story, referring questions to committee spokesperson and Republican political strategist Patrick Meyers.
Meyers said in an emailed statement to MiBiz: “The Board of State Canvassers got it right: the so-called “Fair and Equal” petition clearly submitted an inadequate number of signatures for their initiative. They got a fair and equal review by the Bureau of Elections, but fell well short, and we’re pleased that their poorly drafted, misleading proposal is now off the table for 2022.”
Officials with the Michigan Catholic Conference did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The organization issued a press release Monday about its effort to support challenges to Fair and Equal Michigan.
“The Fair and Equal Michigan proposal includes an unprecedented and likely unconstitutional provision to define religion only as a person’s individual beliefs and would restrict the ability for religious organizations to provide humanitarian aid and social services in the public square,” MCC Vice President for Communications David Maluchnik said in a statement. “The proposal would have a crushing impact on the poor of Michigan by harming many Catholic and Christian, Muslim, and Jewish organizations who daily and outwardly express their faith as a way of life out of love for their neighbor.”
Fair and Equal Michigan Spokesperson Josh Hovey told MiBiz:“When we have every major business group in the state … endorsing us, it’s not necessarily suprising but it’s transparent to see who’s out there funding the opposition. And unfortunately it’s the opposition.”
The Vatican’s Secretary of State attempted to tamp down controversy Thursday over a Vatican diplomatic communication to Italy, saying the Holy See was not trying to block passage of a law that would extend additional protections from discrimination to the LGBT community.
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s No. 2, told Vatican News that he personally approved the diplomatic communication, which was intended to express concerns over the proposed Italian legislation. The Vatican is against any “attitude or gesture of intolerance or hatred toward people motivated by sexual orientations,” he added.
The chief concern, Parolin said, is that “vagaries” in the text of the proposed law could expose anyone expressing an opinion about “any possible distinction between man and woman” to prosecution.
The letter, which has been published by Italian media, claims specifically that the law would violate a landmark treaty establishing diplomatic ties between Italy and the Vatican by putting at risk the right of Roman Catholics to freely express themselves. It cited as an example a clause that would require Catholic schools, along with their public counterparts, to run activities on a designated day against homophobia and transphobia.
The law would add women, people who are homosexual, transsexual or with disabilities, to those protected by a law banning discrimination and punishing hate crimes. The lower house of parliament passed the legislation in November, but it has been stalled in the Senate by right-wing concerns that it would limit freedom of expression.
Right-wing leader Matteo Salvini, for example, has complained that anyone saying that a family is formed with a man and a woman would be exposed to possible prosecution.
Backers of the law have dismissed such concerns, saying that the threshold for prosecution is inciting hatred or violence against the protected classes.
Premier Mario Draghi on Wednesday rebuffed the Vatican’s attempt at influencing the legislative process, telling parliament: “Italy is a secular state.”
But the controversy has ignited outrage over Vatican meddling, with many calling for the cancellation of the so-called Lateran Treaty, originally established under fascism and revised in the 1980s, establishing diplomatic ties between the Vatican and predominantly Roman Catholic Italy.
LGBT activists have vowed to transform Gay Pride events in Rome and Milan on Saturday into protests against what they say is the Vatican’s unprecedented interference in the Italian legislative process.
In decades past, the Vatican objected to Italian laws legalizing abortion and divorce and backed unsuccessful referendums after the fact to try to repeal them.
To Christie Leonard, working at Gospel Crusade was the perfect fusion of vocation and spiritual call, where her talents and her faith could work in tandem.
“I was doing my dream job,” she said in a recent interview with Religion News Service.
Besides providing her income, Gospel Crusade, which does international mission work and runs a conference center from its Bradenton, Fla., base, had immense spiritual significance for Leonard. Her family had attended classes at Gospel Crusade’s church, and since 2000, Leonard had worshiped at the Family Church, a religious community at the conference center, called the Christian Retreat. She cites attending there as cementing her decision to become “a follower of Christ,” and her attachment only deepened when she began working at the Christian Retreat a few years later.
Which is why, she told RNS, she felt crushed when she was fired in 2019, despite giving what she said were 15 of her “best years” to the organization.
Worse, she claims her firing had nothing to do with her work ethic or her spiritual devotion, but rather rumors surrounding her sexuality and her relationship with a co-worker.
She said the firing felt as if “God was throwing me away
Leonard is now suing Gospel Crusade, claiming her termination was driven by discrimination based on her gender and presumptions about her sexual orientation. The church has disputed her account in court, but the case is one of several that could test the reach of the “ministerial exception,” a legal workaround that exempts faith groups from nondiscrimination laws in hiring and firing as long as the employees in question are considered ministers — including, according to recent Supreme Court decisions, staffers such as Leonard who are not clergy
Like many who work for small religious organizations, Leonard juggled multiple jobs at Gospel Crusade. Initially hired as an hourly employee to help with video production, she later found herself assisting the group’s accounting team as well as working in human resources. By the time she was brought on as a salaried employee in 2017, she kept a cot under her desk for late nights spent editing video.
“I basically lived there,” she said.
About the same time, Leonard began working closely with a female colleague. According to Leonard, the two were in constant conversation and over time, she said, “we became almost inseparable.”
Their connection became a flash point, professionally and personally. Leonard said her colleague’s husband “became jealous in some ways” of their relationship. Rumors began to circulate that the two women, who Leonard said were both struggling with marital difficulties, were in a “romantic relationship or a sexual relationship.”
The colleague’s husband, who served on the church’s staff, then allegedly took his concerns to the senior pastor of the Family Church at Christian Retreat, Phil Derstine, who reached out to Leonard’s husband
Leonard insisted it was only after consulting with the two husbands that Derstine allegedly met with both women — not to talk about the situation, but to announce his decision: They could not spend any time together for 30 days. If they managed that, they could both attend a planned mission trip to Uganda in September 2018
Leonard said she and her colleague did as instructed and were able to take the trip together. But at a meeting while they were away, Gospel Crusade board members allegedly heard testimony from the colleague’s husband.
When the women returned, they did not immediately go to their respective homes. According to Leonard, her colleague went to a wedding while Leonard visited family out of state.
According to Leonard, Derstine promptly fired Leonard’s colleague but allowed Leonard to remain on staff — albeit as an hourly employee instead of a salaried one, and with a caveat: She could not move in with her colleague.<
“He said, ‘I have one other condition: You cannot live with that woman,’ ” Leonard recalled, adding that he suggested she live with her brother.
This time, Leonard did not comply. The two women secretly moved in together, coinciding with what Leonard described as a campaign of harassment led by Derstine and others at Gospel Crusade.
“[Derstine] continued to ask me every single day that he called me, ‘Where are you living?’ ” she said. “I got text messages at all hours of the night asking me how my living situation was. I believe there were people that were following us. It was just a very stressful situation.”
Allegedly at Derstine’s urging, family members contacted Leonard to inquire about the living situation. A Gospel Crusade board member allegedly confronted her to say that he knew where she lived.
In early 2019, during a counseling session with Derstine’s wife, Leonard revealed a desire to live with her former colleague, noting she was now unemployed and separated from her husband.
A few hours later, Derstine convened a meeting with Leonard to inform her that she was fired.
Leonard said she was told she was fired for poor job performance. But she alleges that “I was having close to my best year” and that Derstine even asked her more than once after she was fired to assist with video production.
Instead, Leonard believes she lost her job for very different reasons. She said Derstine hinted at larger subtext during the firing meeting, when he allegedly said the mere suggestion of Leonard moving in with her female co-worker was “a dealbreaker.”
“I was fired for sex discrimination,” Leonard said. “They believed that I was in a lesbian relationship with my former co-worker.”
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission agreed: That same year, they found probable cause that she had been discriminated against based on her gender, as well as the perception that she was involved in a same-sex relationship.
Gospel Crusade declined to settle, and Leonard filed her lawsuit in federal court in October 2019, with the help of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund.
“The worst part for me is that these were my spiritual leaders . . . and that somehow God was throwing me away,” Leonard said, “that he didn’t love me, or value me or my service.”
Gospel Crusade did not provide on-the-record responses to requests for comment. However, court documents show lawyers for the group repeatedly denying Leonard’s allegations, arguing that text messages and emails she supplied as evidence were taken out of context.
The court documents also feature Gospel Crusade invoking the “ministerial exception,” a focus of a landmark 2012 U.S. Supreme Court case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical v. EEOC.
That case featured a dispute between a school affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and a former teacher who was fired when she attempted to return to work after being diagnosed with narcolepsy. The court sided with the school, which argued that the teacher was a minister and thus exempt from nondiscrimination laws. The ruling was seen as expanding the ministerial exception to include religious workers who are not ordained clergy.
Since 2012, religious institutions have invoked the ruling to justify the firing of LGBTQ employees. In 2019, a Catholic high school in Indiana fired a gay teacher after the Archdiocese of Indianapolis threatened to strip the school of its affiliation with the church. Explaining why he believed the fired teacher’s spouse — who taught at a nearby Catholic school — should also be fired, the archbishop argued the archdiocese “recognizes all teachers, guidance counselors and administrators as ministers.”
But the ministerial exception is complicated by the Supreme Court’s 2020 decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, in which the majority argued that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — which prohibits hiring discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin — also protects employees against discrimination because they are gay or transgender.
In his majority opinion, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch argued that the court is “deeply concerned with preserving the promise of the free exercise of religion enshrined in our Constitution,” and suggested that laws such as the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act might allow religious groups to avoid nondiscrimination statutes and “supersede Title VII’s commands in appropriate cases.”
The arrival of Justice Amy Coney Barrett has potentially tipped the balance of the court toward a more conservative understanding of religious liberty and the exception.
Cases such as Leonard’s may be used to reconcile the Tabor and Bostock rulings. “If [religious] organizations are allowed to simply do whatever they want to when it comes to employment,” said Kevin Sanderson, Leonard’s attorney, “and aren’t held to the same standards as other employers despite what our laws say, you could have millions of people who are really unprotected in the workplace.”
Leonard remains concerned about others who could face her same situation. “What scares me a little bit is the idea that this ministerial exception — that they’ve now decided I’m a minister — has a growing reach to affect more people,” she said. “Because [Derstine] would say every believer is a leader.”
She also expressed deep frustration with what she described as the church’s patriarchal bent. “Somehow, a room full of these guys get together, say they speak for God and get to treat people however they want?”
The whole ordeal has frayed relationships with friends and family and taken a toll on her faith, but Leonard managed to find a new religious home. She now attends an Episcopal Church, where she says she feels supported and where the priest appears to be “completely different” than the “businessman” she said she worked for at Gospel Crusade.
She also takes comfort in the Episcopal Church’s long-standing support for LGBTQ rights: Should a situation like what happened at Gospel Crusade arise at her new church, she feels more protected.
When John Archibald won the Pulitzer Prize for his Birmingham News columns in 2018, the citation read, “For lyrical and courageous commentary that is rooted in Alabama but has a national resonance in scrutinizing corrupt politicians, championing the rights of women and calling out hypocrisy.” Archibald dismisses this assessment in his questioning and questing book “Shaking the Gates of Hell,” a fascinating blend of family memoir and moral reckoning. “I’m a coward,” Archibald writes. “My pulpit is a pen. It is meant to provoke and to question, but it does not depend on tithes and diplomacy and butts in pews.”
He’s drawing a contrast with his father, a White Methodist minister whose silence from the pulpit during the civil rights struggles’ most violent years troubles his son as he looks back from the vantage point of middle age. “I believe Dad feared losing his congregation,” Archibald writes, “that it was better to have subtle influence than outright rejection.” Methodist ministers who spoke openly about racial justice were sent to tiny churches in remote towns, while his father rose steadily through assignments in northern Alabama to a desirable post in Decatur. There he began to preach more about civil rights — quiet sermons, careful not to alienate parishioners who considered themselves good Christians while ignoring or even condoning the police terror unleashed on African Americans who dared to claim their legal rights.
That seemed too little, too late to Archibald at age 50, when shortly after his father’s death he reread the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s measured but damning words in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: “I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies,” King wrote in 1963 (the year Archibald was born). Instead “too many . . . have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent.”
Anyone tempted to conclude smugly that hesitancy to make waves or make enemies is a thing of the past — or just of the South — will swiftly be corrected by Archibald: “You can see it today, as then, when protesters demonstrate against police shootings or economic injustice or governmental neglect,” he comments. “The well-heeled moderate calls for order, and peace, and caution . . . the silence persists.”
The Rev. Archibald kept John in Decatur public schools after their court-ordered integration in 1970 and signed up his son for an integrated Cub Scout pack. “Your dad was on the right side,” a Black minister from Decatur tells Archibald, arguing that educating Southern whites was as important as activism on the front lines. Archibald isn’t necessarily convinced. “My parents hammered into their children that all people — all people — were entitled to the love and respect and the justice we took for granted,” he writes. “They were people of goodwill. . . . What if that’s not enough?” His book is an attempt to answer that question.
At first it seems odd that Archibald’s musings about his father’s silence should be intertwined with a loving, often very funny memoir of growing up as the youngest of four in a clan that prized adventurousness and outdoor activity — so much so that “somebody almost died on every one of our camping trips.” But these stories spotlight the contradiction between the Rev. Archibald’s caution about publicly supporting civil rights and the lesson he privately imparted to his children: “Life’s great memories were the ones with the greatest risk.” Archibald’s personal recollections vividly demonstrate the conflicts experienced by people rooted in traditional values during a period of rapid social change, when a liberal interpretation of those values offends their conservative community
This was particularly evident after Archibald’s eldest brother Murray came out in the 1970s. (The man he brought home, who became his husband in 2013, was an Eagle Scout and a fraternity member who played college football.) His parents embraced Murray without reservations, but his father’s sermons were confined to parables about the prodigal son and unconditional love. Archibald admits that he was no more forthcoming about his gay brother when he went to college: “I just never found reason to talk about it . . . that’s the way silence works, I guess. You find good reasons, fine reasons, perfectly reasonable reasons to say nothing at all, to stand for the way things are.”
Archibald’s point is not to beat up ourselves or the people we love over the failures of the past, but to learn from them and do better. Not long before he died, the Rev. Archibald told his youngest son he was proud that he had written about racial injustice in his newspaper columns. “I tell myself it is his blessing to say the things he was never quite comfortable enough to say,” Archibald writes. “I am forgiving of my father. At least he saw all as his neighbors, and helped them as he could. I am less forgiving of the church.”
Archibald left the Methodist Church in 2019 after it strengthened its ban on same-sex marriage and gay clergy, bitterly comparing the language used by “traditionalists” with that used in the 1950s to justify keeping the church segregated. Murray remained, choosing their father’s path of working for change from within. Neither decision was easy. Archibald’s honest account of one family’s uneasy journey through the civil rights and gay rights revolutions makes it clear that there are no easy decisions — or answers — when grappling with issues of faith and social justice.
For decades, survivors of childhood sexual abuse and their advocates have urged states to let them hold abusers accountable in civil court, no matter how long it’s been since the abuse. A bipartisan bill in the Colorado Legislature to do just that so far appears to have widespread approval, but it’s not without opposition from the Colorado Catholic Conference — a church embroiled in a sex abuse scandal in Colorado, the U.S. and around the world.
There is no expiration date in Colorado to bring criminal charges against a person accused of child sex abuse, but the statute of limitations to sue an individual is only six years after a victim turns 18. Last year’s effort to change the latter failed.
The renewed push to eliminate the statute of limitations for lawsuits against alleged child sex abusers saw an unanimous Senate vote this week — a vote Wheat Ridge Democratic Sen. Jessie Danielson called “historic.” But the bipartisan bill, which now heads to a House committee, doesn’t apply to civil claims that will have already expired by the time it takes effect, which was a sticking point over constitutionality concerns last year.
That’s why lawmakers have introduced a second (also bipartisan) bill to create a new cause of action to allow people abused as children to sue public and private institutions like churches, schools and the Boy Scouts for past abuse that occurred under their watch. Both the Colorado Catholic Conference and the Boy Scouts, which is also facing abuse allegations in the state, are opposed.
Republican Rep. Matt Soper of Delta is one of the sponsors on both bills, partly because one statistic about childhood sexual abuse sticks with him: Victims often don’t disclose the abuse until their 50s.
“And usually, it’s not a one-off instance. It’s usually over and over again by a family member, a close family friend, someone who’s in a position of trust like a teacher or a priest or a club leader, or a trainer,” Soper said. “And it takes years and years for that individual to be able just to share their story.”
That was James “Jeb” Barrett’s experience. The child sexual abuse survivor and leader of the Denver Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests (or SNAP) chapter grew up in Montana, and said he was sexually abused as a child by multiple adults he trusted — a teacher, an uncle, a priest and Scout leader. His partner, who had also been abused as a child, died by suicide.
It took him until he was 63 to talk about his abuse, he said. He’s now 81, and understands firsthand the effects of childhood trauma, including dealing with addiction.
Other times, the adults in a child’s life don’t believe them, furthering that trauma. On the Senate floor Tuesday, Sen. Brittany Pettersen shared the story of her own mother, who was sexually abused at a young age for years by Pettersen’s grandfather. Pettersen’s mom eventually told her mother, who didn’t believe her daughter.
“This bill is about slightly giving back to ensure (adults abused as children) actually feel for the first time in their life they have the justice they’ve been seeking, the acknowledgement they’ve been seeking for their entire life,” the Lakewood Democrat said.
After years of advocating for policies like the two in front of lawmakers, Barrett said he’s hopeful this time.
“It’s incrementally moving toward the openness, accountability and transparency that we need across the board,” and “justice,” he said.
Support and constitutionality concerns
At least one of the new bills has the support of the Victim Policy Institute, which lobbied heavily against it last year. And, as expected, survivors who’ve advocated for legislation in prior years are back this year, “so their story shapes public policy, so what happened to them doesn’t happen to any other child victim in the future,” said Raana Simmons, director of policy for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
If Colorado approves an elimination of the statute of limitations for civil claims, it will join 12 other states and the U.S. territory of Guam, according to Philadelphia-based Child USAdvocacy.
Kathryn Robb, executive director of the agency and a survivor herself, testifies in statehouses across the country. She said the country is starting to understand how long it takes to disclose abuse and the effects of this trauma on children’s brains and behavior.
“This is happening all over the country right now … because as a society, we are recognizing the enormous problem we have with child sexual abuse,” she said.
A prime example of the widespread nature of child sex abuse is the allegations against Catholic priests. A recent Colorado investigation revealed accusations against dozens of priests for allegedly sexually abusing at least 212 children over the past 70 years, and the church paid nearly $7 million to victims.
The Colorado Catholic Conference, which represents the state’s three dioceses — Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo — said it has supported unlimited time to seek criminal charges but not, as proposed in the bill, for civil statutes.
In a statement, the group said it supports “reasonable and fair extension of the civil statute of limitations; however, statutes of limitations must have a sensible time limit to ensure due process for all parties involved.”
The Denver Area Council of Boy Scouts of America supports the bill that would eliminate the statute of limitations for civil claims, Scout Executive and CEO Chuck Brasfeild wrote in a statement. But the group is concerned about the other bill — creating a new cause of action against an organization that either knew or should have known about the risks and concealed abuse — which, Brasfeild said, appears to be an unconstitutional overreach.
The Colorado Catholic Conference also opposes that measure, saying: “Passing a bill with constitutional and due process problems does not put victims first. It will only delay opportunities for survivors to receive compensation and not promote true restorative justice. The Catholic Church in Colorado is eager to ensure survivors of abuse receive the support they need for true healing.”
But the bill sponsors say that’s the reason they created the measure — expected to have its first Senate committee hearing next week — so victims can sue abusers and the organizations that protected them regardless of when the abuse happened instead of using what’s referred to as a “lookback window” to revive old claims.
Legislative lawyers said a “lookback window” violates the state’s constitution, according to bill sponsors Commerce City Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet and Soper.
“We really wanted to respect our state’s constitution,” Soper said. “Otherwise, why are we here?”
Ted Trimpa, a Colorado lobbyist for the Victim Policy Institute based in Washington, D.C., had argued against the bill last year, saying it didn’t go far enough without the “lookback window.” He believed Colorado lawmakers should have taken the issue to court because other states have successfully won such challenges.
This year, his organization is reviewing whether it will support the civil cause of action bill and is supporting the statute of limitations bill, Trimpa said.
Danielsen said she is urging lawmakers to “think about the adults who endured this kind of abuse in their past because it was traumatic and caused lifelong damage and pain and suffering” — people who have had to seek treatment for years. It will shift the cost from the victims to the abusers as well as prevent young kids from having to face abusers in criminal court, she said. Instead, parents will be able to pursue civil action on their children’s behalf.
Approving this bill, she added, gives lawmakers the opportunity to “stand on the side of survivors and protect those who can’t protect themselves.”