Spokane’s Catholic bishop has criticized Gonzaga University for working to establish a legal clinic focused on defending the rights of LGBT people, suggesting the move runs “contrary to the Catholic faith and natural law.”
Gonzaga this month announced it plans to open the Lincoln LGBTQ+ Rights Clinic, which will be run by the university’s School of Law and its Center for Civil and Human Rights.
According to a news release, the clinic will aim “to advance the equal rights and dignity of individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ through education, programming, advocacy, research and legal representation.”
Overseen by a full-time faculty member, students in their second and third years of law school will assist clients with a wide array of legal matters, including family law, domestic violence issues and discrimination lawsuits, the university said. The clinic might also help people update their government ID cards to reflect their gender identities.
Bishop Thomas Daly, the leader of Spokane’s Catholic diocese, expressed “serious concerns” about the clinic in a statement issued Wednesday by the diocese.
Daly represents a traditional, conservative wing of the Catholic Church that has been at odds with more liberal leaders in the Vatican, including Pope Francis and Cardinal Blase Cupich, who preceded Daly as Spokane’s bishop.
“While the Catholic tradition does uphold the dignity of every human being, the LGBT rights law clinic’s scope of practice could bring the GU Law School into conflict with the religious freedom of Christian individuals and organizations,” the diocese said. “There is also a concern that Gonzaga Law School will be actively promoting, in the legal arena and on campus, values that are contrary to the Catholic faith and natural law.”
On Thursday, the diocese published an update on its website, saying Gonzaga President Thayne McCulloh had offered to “facilitate a conversation” between the diocese and the law school, “specifically looking at the scope and focus of the clinic.”
Gonzaga representatives declined requests for an interview Friday. In an email, spokeswoman Mary Joan Hahn said only that the university was aware of Daly’s concerns and plans to address them “in future conversations.”
Several representatives of Gonzaga’s law school did speak to the Catholic News Agency for a story published Wednesday, including the school’s dean, Jacob Rooksby.
Bryan Pham, an attorney, Jesuit priest and chaplain for the law school, told the church news outlet: “I don’t think there’s anything that the law school or the clinic will be doing that would be in opposition to the church’s teaching, other than the fact that we want students to engage in this in a civil context of a law setting.”
The clinic, he said, is not “about converting people or trying to get them to believe one way or another.”
The law school is working to hire a director and open the clinic next fall, a Gonzaga spokeswoman told the Catholic News Agency.
Other Gonzaga legal clinics focus on business, the federal tax code, elder issues, immigration, Native American issues, land use and the environment.
In its news release, Gonzaga said that “only a handful” of other universities have legal clinics focused on LGBT clients, including Harvard, Cornell, Emory and UCLA. Gonzaga’s will be the first in Washington state.
The Lincoln LGBTQ+ Rights Clinic is named after Joe Lincoln, a 1988 alumnus who sits on Gonzaga’s board of trustees. The university said a “significant” donation from Lincoln has made the clinic possible.
Gonzaga has had an LGBT resource and advocacy center, also named after Lincoln, since 2004. The university also has recognized several LGBT student clubs, including the Queer Student Union for undergraduates and the Gender and Sexuality Alliance for law students.
Gonzaga previously took a more conservative position on LGBT rights in line with Catholic Church directives.
In 1993, Gonzaga trustees and then-President Bernard Coughlin — who died in January at age 97 — refused to sanction a group representing LGBT students, according to a Spokesman-Review story from the time. The group would have received a small budget like other student clubs.
“If the gay and lesbian association uses the name of Gonzaga and receives financial support, then the university is perceived as giving support to the broader gay rights movement,” Coughlin said at the time. “And that is not in the best interests of the university.”