by Pete Mazzaccaro

It’s been a while since we’ve had a story quite like last week’s report of the termination of Father Jim St. George from Chestnut Hill College. The story was the first to produce a veritable flood of commentary in the online comments section of chestnuthilllocal.com since we switched over to the new website.

In the week since that story ran with my commentary on the matter [Chestnut hill College and the struggle for equal rights”], I’ve found myself in some interesting religious discussions with several readers who have tried to explain to me the fine points Catholic dogma and asserted that my own position – that the church is fundamentally wrong on homosexuality and that gay workers at religious institutions should be protected –  is repressive of religious freedom.

(It’s important to point out here that the Catholic Church is by no means a standout on homosexuality. The Vatican has been in many ways more moderate than representatives of other Christian denominations.)

First, the readers who disagree with me have been surprisingly gracious. This is the kind of debate that can easily descend into a flurry of name-calling. But that hasn’t happened. It’s nice to know we can have a public debate on a subject on which the disagreements run as deep as personal faith.

Second, it’s interesting to me that a defense of doctrine that makes sinners of citizens – that we should love them but not “what they do” – is that any move by a civil society to protect gay people from the sort of employment discrimination that is now permissible by law in far too many parts of our nation, including the state of Pennsylvania, is somehow a “politically correct” form of state censure of religion.

Our country is founded on the principle of religious freedom. The first colonists of North America came here to escape religious persecution. And, as recently as the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of the virulently homophobic Westboro Baptist Church’s rights to picket military funerals, we know that religious groups certainly have the freedom to express their views.

But we also don’t allow legal exemptions based on religious beliefs. An extreme example is the enforcement of laws preventing conservative Mormons to practice polygamy. It is not out of the question for the law to curb religious practice.

I think we can all agree that religious institutions should be allowed to practice what they preach. But when those religious entities extend their reach beyond the church and run large institutions that employ many different people, including those who are gay, it is essential that they treat those employees in a way that conforms to civil law, not to religious practice.

It is not Political Correctness run amok. Nor is it an attempt by the “thought police” to correct social attitudes that do not conform to progressive principles. It is instead, again, the very basic guarantee of equal rights for all members of our community and of our society. It is a way to be sure that all can live the lives they want and do so without fear that those choices might get them fired, regardless of where they work.