Monday, April 6, 2009

Inversion of Values and Gay Employees in Churches and Church Institutions: Ongoing Injustice

I want to add a brief coda to what I posted earlier today about the case of Ruth Kolpack (here). In that posting, I noted that it is typical for those in supervisory positions in Christian institutions to claim that gay employees are victimizing the person in authority, when challenged about their homophobic treatment of gay employees. Typically, in these situations, an inversion of values takes place, in which the church authority figure seeks to represent himself (or herself) as the real victim, even when s/he has taken away the livelihood and assaulted the vocation of a gay or lesbian brother and sister.

In my analysis of Ruth Kolpack's case, I did not want to mix that observation about the particular kind of cruelty many churches and church institutions reserve for gay employees in particular, and with my observations about the violation of the rights of lay ministers like Ruth Kolpack. I did not want to overlap the two lines of analysis because I thought some readers might conclude that I was suggesting that the diocese of Madison is trying to spin the firing of Ruth Kolpack as a dismissal of a gay church employee.

I know nothing at all of the background of Ruth Kolpack's case, and certainly do not want to imply that the diocese is involved in a smear campaign based on sexual orientation (though I would not be surprised at all to see a church institution try to spin the firing of any unmarried employee as really all about sexual orientation, though the church can't talk about its reasons . . . .). The point of my previous posting is to highlight the central principle at stake in Ruth Kolpack's case: before employees of church institutions are terminated, they deserve the same due process that employees of any workplace deserve before being fired.

Catholic teaching is clear on this point: workers are human beings and not objects, and they have human rights. The right to work is itself a basic human right, and taking away one's livelihood without a serious reason and in the absence of due process is a serious moral violation. This is all the more true for churches, who undermine their claim to believe--really believe--in the Bread of Life they offer all believers, when they shove human beings away from the table of daily bread.

At the same time, and as a coda to what I wrote earlier, I do want to underscore that it is not at all unusual for churches and church institutions to fire gay employees without any due process, while refusing to disclose any reason for the termination. It is also not unusual for churches and church institutions to state, in such cases, that they are keeping silence about the reason for the termination to safeguard the reputation of the one who was fired--even as the silence itself insinuates that there is an unsavory reason for the termination. And the silence is designed to do precisely that.

Churches and church-related institutions have destroyed the livelihood and reputation--and often the lives--of gay and lesbian employees for generations, by the use of these tactics. They have counted on their ability to use portentous silence to insinuate that the person they fired without disclosure of a reason is gay or lesbian, and also promiscuous or God knows what else, at points in history when LGBT human beings had no choice except to put up with such treatment, or damage themselves more. The churches--all of them, in my view--bear a great weight of guilt for behaving this way repeatedly towards gay and lesbian persons for generations.

This is typical behavior of churches and church institutions, when the person being fired is gay or lesbian. And as I have noted repeatedly on this blog, it is not confined to the Catholic church, though it may be more common in Catholic institutions, since, even more than many churches, the Catholic church makes no bones about its right to fire employees without due process, even as it preaches that such behavior is immoral in secular institutions.

But as I have noted in previous postings, I have found that institutions owned by other churches are also capable of this ugly behavior. I am increasingly convinced that it is tactical behavior developed by entrenched male heterosexist hierarches in many churches, and that it will continue as long as members of churches and the general public keep giving the benefit of the doubt to leaders of churches and church institutions, when they trample on gay human beings.

As I have noted, I have discovered that United Methodist institutions are just as capable as Catholic institutions of firing an employee with no due process at all, in the absence of any evaluation of the employee's work, without affording the employee any right to respond to criticisms of his/her work, and with ugly insinuations (and lies) about "personal" reasons for the termination.

Why do churches and church-related institutions keep behaving this way while preaching that behavior like in non-church related workplaces is immoral ? Quite simply, because they can do so. Because they pay only a tiny price for behaving this way.

Because the public and church members give the benefit of the doubt to churches and to the leaders of churches and church-owned institutions. Because laws to protect the basic rights of workers--including the right not to be fired simply because one is gay or lesbian--just do not exist in many areas of the country, and in those areas, churches and church-owned institutions are eager to take advantage of what they can do legally, even if their behavior violates their own ethical teachings.

When this is done to gay and lesbian employees, who will protest? In my experience, not many people will do so. Who will give the benefit of the doubt to the gay or lesbian employee in a conflict situation involving a church or church institution and its leaders, backed as they are by all the institutional power of the church?

Until our laws provide minimal protection from unjust termination for all workers as well as for gay and lesbian citizens, churches and their institutions will continue to engage in exceedingly unjust and exceedingly cruel behavior towards gay and lesbian employees. And the laws will not change until more and more citizens demand such protections for workers and LGBT human beings--and until more and more people of faith take seriously the witness of LGBT human beings who have been abused by the churches and church institutions. The churches will not stop behaving this way until church members demand better of their churches and church leaders, and until they make the men on top (of both genders) pay a price for such behavior.

It should be noted that it is typical for the men who run things in the churches to make common cause regarding such issues of employee rights, even across denominational lines. They do so because leaders of many churches have a vested interest in protecting their heterosexist male power centers from challenge and critique. The kind of behavior I'm describing in these two postings about the Ruth Kolpack case is is common in many churches because it is, in the final analysis, all about the reflex reaction of entrenched heterosexist male hierarchies in many churches to those they see as the primary threats to their power and privilege--women, first and foremost, as as fellow travelers of the women's movement, gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.

It will be interesting to see what happens in this case. Wisconsin has tougher laws governing labor practices than some states do, and this is why the Madison diocese is now expending energy in defending itself against the charge that it did not afford Ruth Kolpack due process before firing her. Had this happened in one of the "right-to-work" states like Florida (or Arkansas or North Carolina), where churches and church institutions can get away with murder (metaphorically speaking) in their treatment of workers, things would be different. But perhaps (one hopes) not in Wisconsin . . . .