Catholic Church, Chicago's gay community at odds over Cardinal's Ku Klux Klan comments

December 28, 2011

Mounting tensions between Chicago’s gay community and the Catholic Church have come to the fore this month.

The tensions started when a proposed time and route change to the annual Gay Pride Parade stirred objections from parishioners at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel church in Lakeview. 

The new route would have directed the parade in front of the church on Belmont Avenue, between Halsted and Broadway Streets.  The church also took issue with the change in the parade's start time from noon to 10 a.m., which would conflict with morning services.

The changes, first proposed in October, were aimed at curbing a fast-growing attendance rate for the parade, which last year had estimates of over 800,000 attendees flocking to the North Side neighborhood. They were also aimed at curbing public intoxication, with officials hoping the earlier time would tamp down alcohol consumption.

The gay community reacted to the church’s objections, and Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) stepped in to mediate the dispute between parade organizers and church representatives.

Then, Cardinal Francis George of the Church’s Chicago Archdiocese weighed in on the matter during a WFLD interview, which aired on Christmas day.  

In a discussion about the parade route changes, he said: “Well, I go with the pastor. I mean, he’s telling us that they won’t be able to have Church services on Sunday, if that’s the case. You know, you don’t want the Gay Liberation Movement to morph into something like the Ku Klux Klan, demonstrating in the streets against Catholicism.”

The Klan reference sparked an outcry, especially among Chicago's gay and lesbian community.

“In comparing the LGBT community to the Ku Klux Klan—in his remarks about the potential disruption and inconvenience of the new Pride Parade route and start time—Cardinal George has gone too far, and he should graciously apologize, and step down from his post," said Tracy Baim, in an OpEd posted to the Windy City Times website.

On Tuesday, Cardinal George defended his earlier statements with a release posted to the Archdiocese of Chicago’s website

“It was apparent that the Parade would interfere with divine worship in a Catholic parish on the new route. When the pastor's request for reconsideration of the plans was ignored, the organizers invited an obvious comparison to other groups who have historically attempted to stifle the religious freedom of the Catholic Church. One such organization is the Ku Klux Klan which, well into the 1940's, paraded through American cities not only to interfere with Catholic worship but also to demonstrate that Catholics stand outside of the American consensus. It is not a precedent anyone should want to emulate.”

He went on to say:

“It is terribly wrong and sinful that gays and lesbians have been harassed and subjected to psychological and even physical harm. These tragedies can be addressed, however, without disturbing the organized and orderly public worship of God in a country that claims to be free. I am grateful that all parties concerned resolved this problem by moving the Parade's start time so as not to conflict with the celebration of Mass that Sunday.”

On Wednesday last week, Tunney and parade organizers put out a joint statement, stating they had reached an agreement with the church and would start the parade later:

"We met with representatives from Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church last week to hear the parish's concerns about the proposed changes to the 2012 Gay Pride Parade. We discussed moving the start time back to 12:00 Noon to help accommodate Sunday services along the parade route. After consulting with the various City departments, we believe this is an agreeable compromise to help keep the parade safe and manageable while respecting the diversity of our neighborhood."

The tensions are the latest involving the Catholic Church and the gay and lesbian community in Illinois. 

Other Chicago churches though are disappointed in the new Gay Pride parade's route for the opposite reasons as Cardinal George. Pastor Joy Douglas Strome leads the Lake View Presbyterian Church which is a huge supporter of the LGBT community and has traditionally been along the parade route. The new route will not pass by her church's doors.

"It's always been an event at our church. We have a big picnic on the lawn that day and we set up risers to people can watch," Douglas Strome said. 

She added the controversy surrounding Cardinal George's comments only serves to hurt perceptions of church and turn people off who need religion. "Just when we think we've pushed through some big issues, something comes up like this and it feels like we've moved backwards again," she said.

On Wednesday, the New York Times published a story about the Catholic Charities', which has long received state funds for its social programs and adoption services in Illinois. However, earlier this year the organization was told to comply with the newly passed Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Unions Act, which forbade it from denying same-sex couples the right to adopt children or become foster parents if it accepted state funding.  As a result, some Catholic Charities' affiliates in Illinois have decided to shut down their adoption-related services rather than comply with the law.