LGBTQ Agenda: SCOTUS litigant discusses ministering to queer Catholics

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday July 20, 2021
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Greg Bourke, left, and his husband, Michael DeLeon, celebrated outside the U.S. Supreme Court after the justices legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in the Obergefell v. Hodges case on June 26, 2015. Photo: Molly Kaplan, ACLU
Greg Bourke, left, and his husband, Michael DeLeon, celebrated outside the U.S. Supreme Court after the justices legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in the Obergefell v. Hodges case on June 26, 2015. Photo: Molly Kaplan, ACLU

Greg Bourke, a plaintiff in the Obergefell v. Hodges case that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide six years ago, is coming out with a memoir of his life as a gay Roman Catholic in Kentucky.

Titled "Gay, Catholic, and American: My Legal Battle for Marriage Equality and Inclusion," Bourke's book discusses his dismissal from the Boy Scouts of America in 2012, his role in the U.S. Supreme Court case, and how he and his husband, Michael DeLeon, have integrated their identity as gay men with their Catholic faith. The book will be published by the University of Notre Dame Press in September.

"We've definitely had our experiences with discrimination, some with the Catholic Church and some with the Boy Scouts," Bourke told the Bay Area Reporter. "We've managed to overcome everything, pretty much, so far."

The Catholic Church officially teaches that homosexual actions are sinful and that, therefore, LGBTQ people should remain celibate. The Boy Scouts of America had a policy until 2015 that adults who are "open or avowed homosexuals" would not be allowed in leadership positions.

Bourke and DeLeon met in 1982 when both were attending the University of Michigan.

"He rounds up to 40 when people ask" how long they've been together, DeLeon told the B.A.R. "I'm waiting until next year."

Both were raised Catholic and did not want to give up their faith, in spite of the Vatican's position. They started going together to Our Lady of Lourdes in Louisville, Kentucky.

"We've been here 34 years and have had complete acceptance and validation," Bourke, 63, said.

DeLeon, also 63, added that one of their habits while traveling is to find architecturally interesting Catholic churches.

"It's rare we miss a week, even out of town," DeLeon said.

But beyond the doors of Our Lady of Lourdes, there have been problems with the Archdiocese of Louisville, Bourke said. The archdiocese has been led by the Reverend Joseph Edward Kurtz since 2007, when he was appointed by then-Pope Benedict XVI.

For example, when the Boy Scouts reversed its policy and allowed gay men to serve as scout leaders, "my archdiocese would not allow me to return to service" in the archdiocese-sponsored scout group.

"My parish backed me up but the archdiocese did not," Bourke said. "It did not surprise me. To this day they still would not permit me to be a Boy Scout leader."

Another issue emerged when Bourke and DeLeon purchased plots at a Catholic cemetery.

"There was a decision made that any same-sex couple that wanted to have a monument at the cemetery had to have their monument approved, which did not apply to opposite-sex couples," Bourke said. "Sure enough we were told to submit our memorial design to the archdiocese. They did not approve our monument, and we couldn't have the memorial we wanted."

Lawsuit brings vindication from high court

In 2013, Bourke and DeLeon sued the Commonwealth of Kentucky challenging the state's ban on same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions. The couple had a civil marriage ceremony in Canada nine years earlier.

"Michael and I have two children we'd been parenting for 15 years," Bourke said. "We decided to file a lawsuit because the commonwealth wouldn't allow us to co-adopt. Because we couldn't be recognized both as parents on the birth certificate, for the safety and security of our family, we decided it was something we had to do out of necessity."

Bourke explained that he could have lost custody of the kids "if something happened to Michael."

In Bourke v. Beshear, which was consolidated with Love v. Beshear, a United States District Court ruled in favor of Bourke that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution requires Kentucky to recognize their marriage. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, and the case was consolidated with Obergefell v. Hodges when it reached the Supreme Court, which in June 2015 ruled in Bourke and DeLeon's favor.

"He [Kurtz] was strongly and publicly advocating to fight marriage equality as one of his flock was pushing the case through the court system," Bourke said.

When Bourke and DeLeon's case was working through the courts, Kurtz was serving as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, campaigning against same-sex marriage.

Couple founds Pride ministry

Back in Louisville, Bourke and DeLeon took the initiative for beginning an LGBTQ ministry at their parish.

"Michael and I have been practicing our faith for 40 years and the people in the pews have changed," Bourke said. "A year before last, we launched a Pride ministry. That would have been unheard of 10 years ago."

Bourke said it's "remarkable" to see that many Pride or LGBTQ ministries in Catholic parishes nationwide are started by straight allies. He said decades ago "less than 1%" of Catholics probably would have approved of same-sex relationships.

"A lot of couples and individuals get fed up with the church and walk away," Bourke said. "We want to give hope and encouragement to stick around, and consider coming back, to be part of the change that's taking place in the church."

Bourke said that the Pride ministry at Our Lady of Lourdes is "pretty active" and before the COVID-19 pandemic made in-person gatherings unsafe it was responsible for a service project at a local AIDS shelter during Christmastime, workshops, and was present at ministry fairs.

"Even during COVID, yard signs were given and sold promoting our Lourdes Pride ministry," Bourke said, describing the yard signs (common in the Bay Area) that read "In this house we believe, love is love" followed by other liberal slogans, as well as Black Lives Matter yard signs.

"We hope to get more activities up again now," Bourke said.

Gregory DuPont, the parish director, stated in an email that it is trying to reboot the ministry post-lockdown.

"We are the only parish in the Archdiocese of Louisville with a ministry to the LGBTQ+ community," DuPont stated. "We had folks join us from three other parishes to get information and to join our planning and discerning conversations, so I think the impact has been a positive one. I know that our core team is ready to meet and promote an active ministry again. Because of my involvement with the ministry at this parish, I've been asked to participate in two other conversations with churches discerning the same. So even though it seems like we aren't doing anything, the ripple is being felt."

DeLeon said that "we are blessed to have a home parish that has made an effort to make us feel part of the family."

"There's the church — the Vatican, the pope — and then there's the people in the pews who embrace their LGBTQ brothers and sisters," DeLeon said. "People come up to us, as their kids come out, and say they are fortunate for us to be there as role models."

Mixed messages from Rome

Still DeLeon gets frustrated about mixed messages from Pope Francis. As the B.A.R. reported last October, the pontiff became the first to express that he was fine with the legal recognition of same-sex civil unions.

Then in March, after an inquiry from German church officials asking if clergy could bless same-sex unions, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with the approval of the pope, stated that they could not, stating that God "does not and cannot bless sin."

Some German clergy responded by defying the decree and blessing same-sex couples anyway, according to the New York Times.

"The pope might come out and say something people rave about, then something else comes out of the Vatican and you never know if it's the pope but it takes it two steps back," DeLeon said. "For me, I never know if it's a translation or the details. I know early on in his reign he was positive, but we've been brought back with something less encouraging."

DeLeon said that "some of our parishioners took offense" to the March statement.

"They said that in their eyes our relationship is as equal as anyone else in our parish," DeLeon said.

JR Zerkowski, the executive director of the LGBTQ Catholic-affinity group Fortunate Families and director of Catholic LGBT ministry for the Diocese of Lexington, said he has known Bourke "probably about eight years."

"We worked together at Our Lady of Lourdes when I came in to help their LGBT ministry, and both Greg and Michael were creating the core team for that ministry," Zerkowski said. "On a practical level, ministries give LGBTQ people and their families a place to find home, to feel a sense of belonging and it gives them a voice and a place in the church's ministry."

Zerkowski said that in his "travels throughout the country," he sees opposition as coming from a place of fear of change.

"I usually see misinformed opposition — erroneous beliefs about what the Catholic Church or scripture say about LGBTQ persons, or people with opinions that they put forth as teaching," Zerkowski said. "There's ignorance and fear of others that people don't get in contact with. But ministries allow — encounter — LGBTQ persons to share their lives and journeys with faith communities, and after education and dialogue some erroneous, long held beliefs are eradicated."

Zerkowski called the couple "an example to the entire church."

"I think couples like Greg and Michael call on the church to reassess how we accompany legitimately married gay people," Zerkowski said. "Greg and Michael call us to seriously examine our pastoral response because we have an obligation as a church to accompany every member."

When asked why he sticks with Catholicism, in spite of the discrimination he's experienced, Bourke asked, "Why don't you move to another country?"

"It's not something I'm ready to give up," he said, adding a story about how he wears a rainbow in the shape of a cross when he is distributing Holy Communion.

"I'm comfortable enough with who I am that I do that all the time," Bourke said. "I've had people come up after mass and say 'I appreciate you wearing that.' You have to give other folks the opportunity to accept you."

LGBTQ Agenda is an online column that appears weekly. Got a tip on queer news? Contact John Ferrannini at [email protected]

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