Mass. bishops decry rushed through transgender bill

BOSTON -- On Nov. 16 a bill to protect and extend the rights of transgender citizens in Massachusetts reached Governor Deval L. Patrick's desk, where he has ten days to sign it into law. Versions passed by the house and senate appeared identical, according to sources at the statehouse, thereby moving the bill to the governor's desk immediately.

An Act Relative to Transgender Equal Rights grants protection to transgender individuals under current civil rights laws in the commonwealth.

Executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference James Driscoll sent The Pilot a statement detailing the unified stance of the four bishops of Massachusetts. The bishops expressed support for redrafting the bill to remove language they found objectionable, but additionally criticized lawmakers for rushing the process, not allowing time for more public vetting of the bill.

"It is important to point out that legal protections against discrimination and hate crimes are critically important to all individuals regardless of race, religion, gender, ethnicity, etc.," the statement said.

"However, the conference finds it unnecessary to add another category (gender identity) given the protections that are already in place in the existing laws," it continued.

The MCC's statement also addressed the removal of language which had given rise to the phrase "Bathroom Bill." Lawmakers had removed language perceived to cause confusion in sex-designated public facilities, reducing the bill to two pages. Opposition to the bill previously expressed concern over potentially creating confusion.

"The Catholic Conference fully supports the Joint Committee on the Judiciary's decision to remove the most objectionable language from the bill," the statement said.

"The committee listened to what the conference and many others who agree with us had to say about the consequences of the bill's passage. That is, access to public, gender specific accommodations where there is a legal and common sense expectation of privacy, (i.e.: rest rooms, locker rooms, etc.)," it added.

Groups opposing the passage of the bill expressed frustration with the quick turnaround time, a concern expressed by Driscoll on behalf of the MCC.

"Although the conference is pleased with the removal of the most objectionable provisions, we are disappointed that the re-draft of the bill came out of committee and was voted on in the house and senate in less than 24 hours. There was not adequate time for everyone interested in this legislation to analyze and fully vet the effects it may have throughout Massachusetts," he said.

The president of the Massachusetts Family Institute -- a nonsectarian, not-for-profit organization -- Kris Mineau expressed frustration with the expedited process which he said defied standing legislative procedures.

"The whole process was circumvented at the midnight hour, to ram the bill through," he said. "It was a total abdication of what legislative process should be, what open, transparent government should be."

The senate passed the bill quickly by "voice vote," according to news feeds from the statehouse. The bill had a history of hurried procedures at that point.

Lawmakers in the Massachusetts House of Representatives cut off debate early Nov. 15 for a measure aimed at protecting transgender individuals under existing state civil rights laws.

Opposition to the bill, house bill H502 and senate bill S764, reached an impasse as the previously agreed upon time passed, forcing a vote. The vote ended 95-58 supporting the measure, and moving legislation along to the senate.

On the senate side, the office of Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz responded with an emailed statement from the senator on short notice.

"I was proud to sign on as a senate lead co-sponsor of this bill. In talking with constituents and advocates around my district, I've gained a deeper understanding of the discrimination the transgender community faces every day -- discrimination that too often results in poverty and displacement from one's community, or comes in the form of violence," Chang-Diaz said.

"And that's why this bill is critical: it provides essential protections to our transgender friends and neighbors in employment, education, housing, credit, and in situations of hate-based violence. It protects basic human dignity -- a value that is deeply held by all the major world religions. I think we can all be proud of this bill today."

The MCC statement noted legal protections against discrimination and hate crimes as critically important to all individuals regardless of race, religion, gender, ethnicity, etc. However, the conference also found it unnecessary to add another category, gender identity, to the protections already in place through existing civil rights laws.

In an interview with The Pilot, Driscoll stressed Church teaching on the right of an individual to live a life free from the threat of physical and emotional violence.

"We don't want anybody to be injured as a result of violent acts," he said. "Every human being should be protected from becoming a victim of harm."

Driscoll and Mineau expressed aligning sentiments in their opposition to the moral implications of the bill for society and government.

"We believe that promoting transgender lifestyles is bad public policy," said Mineau.

Driscoll also stated the traditional stance of the Church on issues of gender.

"The Church's position is that gender, male or female, remains constant until natural death."