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Violence Against Women Act and the U.S. Catholic Bishops

Bishops are attacking a major social justice document that does not even threaten the values they are trying to uphold.

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April 5, 2013

This article originally appeared in AlJazeera on March 19, 2013. 

Now that the Sistine Chapel's makeshift chimney has been dismantled, the American Sunday talk show pundits have speculated on Pope Francis' potential, and all the religion correspondents have departed Vatican City for home, it is time to reopen a mystifying chapter in the most recent saga of American Catholic ecclesiastical missteps.

On the eve of President Obama's signature on the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013, five leaders of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops earlier last week attacked the necessary legislation. This move not only confirms that the bishops are out of touch with American society, but also proves that they are ready to disregard their own longstanding justice commitments - and millions of domestic violence victims - for the sake of a few unrelated legal points.

Their claim? That the act promotes same-sex marriage and endangers freedom of conscience for religious organisations. The problem? Not only does the act - now law - do neither of these things, but the Catholic Church now appears guilty of massive hypocrisy. For the sake of making oblique objections to the Affordable Care Act and to the Supreme Court challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act, it is withdrawing support for a law that aids 1.3 million female domestic violence victims annually (to say nothing of the men and children it also serves).

Manipulation of facts

It is worth repeating: five prominent bishops' myopic focus on legal protections for official Catholic positions on marriage and reproduction has led them to attack an important social justice document that does not even threaten the values they are trying to uphold. It is an act that protects many other values that they have forcefully defended in the past. In this move they have not only abandoned victims of intimate partner violence, but have also stepped over the fine line between legitimate political advocacy for a strongly held belief and dishonest manipulation of facts.

First, the bishops' claims: according to their statement, the new version of VAWA contains an unacceptable provision. It expands the 1994 protections for victims of hate crimes linked to gender orientation to embrace victims of all intimate partner violence. It now explicitly covers all close social relationships, not just cohabitation, regardless of the victims' gender orientation or gender identity.

The bishops conclude that the act "unjustly" exploits gender orientation and gender identity "for purposes of marriage redefinition, and marriage is the only institution that unites a man and a woman with each other and with any children born from their union". In other words, they imply, VAWA assumes and promotes same-sex marriage.

In addition, the bishops complain, the new VAWA "omits language to protect the conscience rights of faith-based service providers to victims of human trafficking". In other words, VAWA does not explicitly direct the executive branch to permit VAWA-funded faith-based anti-trafficking organisations to refuse to offer full-spectrum reproductive services (like contraception and abortion) to trafficked women. As a consequence, VAWA endangers religious freedom. 

The first problem with these claims is that they are false. And because VAWA is a reauthorisation act, which reads like list of editorial changes, it is a good bet that most people won't follow up to discover this.

Take the claim that VAWA supports same-sex marriage. The new version of VAWA covers "domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking", all of which take place among heterosexuals as well as gays, lesbians and transgendered persons, and none of which assumes marriage. Marriage is covered, of course, but VAWA includes rape, teen dating violence, and the like - a fact for which I, as a parent, am grateful.

VAWA specifically mentions gender orientation and gender identity not because it promotes same-sex marriage, but because of two well-known facts: gays, lesbians and transgendered people are more likely than heterosexuals to suffer intimate violence and less likely to receive assistance when they seek help. Current data are hard to find because the most recent Department of Justice report does not break out data for gays and lesbians. But Paul Cameron's analysis of National Criminal Victimization Survey data from the 1990s indicated that, for example, partnered gays and lesbians were at least 20 times more likely to be victims of domestic violence as their married counterparts. Anecdotes abound of police refusing to intervene in gay and lesbian domestic disputes or misidentifying the perpetrators when they do.

Same-sex violence

Clearly, opposing same-sex violence is not a subtle argument against the Defense of Marriage Act. Writing same-sex violence explicitly into legislation simply directs government and non-profits to develop needed programmes that target it.

The conscience claim does not hold water either. Nothing in VAWA forbids religious organisations from working with trafficked women on their own or prevents the executive branch from accommodating exceptions for religious organisations that it does fund. It simply does not say. If a religious anti-trafficking non-profit wants VAWA funds it may - or may not - have to offer reproductive services. To be sure, this silence may eventually lead to limits on VAWA funding for religious organisations, but it does not curtail religious freedom. If religious organisations wish to forego federal funding, they are free to do as they please - religious freedom intact.

The cost of this opposition to VAWA is abandonment of two of the USCCB's own established justice agendas. The American Catholic bishops were strong supporters of the 1994 Violence against Women Act (VAWA). Their 1992 pastoral letter "When I Call for Help" roundly condemned domestic violence, and - as Jesuit School of Theology professor Lisa Fullam points out - their 2002 update recommended among other things that abuse victims call the VAWA-funded National Domestic Violence Hotline.

In addition, the USCCB upholds the Vatican's 1986 position that "the fundamental human rights of homosexual persons must be defended and that all of us must strive to eliminate any forms of injustice, oppression, or violence against them". In other words, Catholics are obliged to fight violence against gays and lesbians.

The result is that leading bishops have spent their quickly eroding political capital on two non-issues at the cost of contradicting their own well-founded teachings on domestic violence and justice for gays and lesbians. To make matters worse, they are opposing a law that they themselves admit strengthens protections against domestic violence and human trafficking. No wonder they are accused of being "out of touch".

The irony is that there is a just reason to question the VAWA reauthorisation: in a year of contracting state and local funding for domestic violence, the act expands VAWA's mandate while reducing its appropriations in most of dozens of categories, decreasing its de facto protections. But that fact seems to have slipped by the bishops.

When the bishops urge Congress toward "future action to revisit these concerns" about gay marriage and religious freedom, perhaps they can add adequate appropriations to the list.

-Cristina LH Traina is Professor of Religious Studies at Northwestern University