Last night I watched Milk, a film about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California. The movie spent considerable time focusing on Milk’s opposition to the Briggs Initiative, a 1978 California ballot initiative to remove public school teachers, administrators, and counselors who engaged homosexual sex which was “not discreet and not practiced in private” or who advocated, encouraged, or promoted either private or public homosexual activity in a way such that school children or other employees could become aware of it. Among other things, teachers could be considered for termination if the school board found they engaged in behavior which would “tend to encourage, promote or dispose schoolchildren toward private or public homosexual activity or private or public homosexual conduct.”
The initiative, also known as Proposition 6, was largely aimed at removing gay and lesbian teachers from school, under the belief that their presence might make children gay. During a debate with Harvey Milk, California State Senator John Briggs, who sponsored Proposition 6, argued that homosexual teachers wanted to abuse and recruit children. Milk responded by saying that law enforcement statistics showed that pedophiles identified primarily as heterosexual and by joking, “If it were true that children mimicked their teachers, you’d sure have a helluva lot more nuns running around.”
Because much of the rhetoric in support of the Briggs Initiative was Christian and focused on the need to protect morality and family values, I tried to find Catholic responses to it at the time. What I found surprised me.
For one, I came across this photo from a San Francisco State University database of clergy protesting at the 1978 Pride march:
I also came across a brochure outlining Catholic opposition to Proposition 6, including statements by the Catholic bishops of San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles. Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco said Proposition 6 was “perilously vague” and would wrongly harm “the civil rights of homosexual persons.” Bishop Cummins of Oakland said the proposition would harm the “freedom of teachers, whether homosexual or heterosexual.” Los Angeles’s bishop said, “I’m opposed to Proposition 6 because it would mean that could teachers could be fired merely on the basis that they are known to be homosexuals.”
The brochure, sponsored by Catholics for Human Dignity, included the names of dozens of priests and religious and was titled, “A Statement of Conscience.” It stated:
We, the undersigned Roman Catholic clergy, religious and lay people, want to publicly voice our disapproval of the Briggs Initiative, Proposition 6 on the Fall ballot in California.
This proposed law unfairly attacks one segment of our society, the homosexual school teacher and any other teacher or administrator who speaks out in their favor. It is a clear violation of human rights, the dignity of men and women, and of Freedom of Speech in America.
There are already ample laws to protect school children from the undue influence of teachers regarding sexuality. Consequently the only purpose of Proposition 6 is to unleash a witch-hunt of hatred and bigotry that will smear the reputation and lives of our most dedicated citizens, our school teachers.
If the RIGHTS of one segment of our society are crushed, who will be next.
Both Catholics and non-Catholics often forget that there have always been points of divergence between Catholicism and America’s “religious right.” Despite its notoriety in recent years over the firing of gay employees, segments of Catholicism over the last several decades have come out in defense of gay teachers. This is an important part of American Catholic history, and should be a part of American Catholicism’s future as well.
is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. His writings focus primarily on Catholicism, homoeros, and law, and have appeared in Logos, Commonweal Magazine, Church Life Journal, and other publications. In his free time, he enjoys hosting seminars, creative writing workshops, and dinner parties.
Chris, this was so interesting. I forwarded it to a couple of my kids who I think would be surprised to know this history, given the current ways (some) Catholic institutions are treating their gay employees. In 1978 I was in 8th grade, and the church who protested the Briggs Initiative and marched with civil rights activists was the church I grew up in, the church I remember, and the church I feel is inside of me still.
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