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Missouri Catholic Bishop Criticizes Church-Affiliated Hospital for Extending Benefits to Married Gay Couples; Rejects 'Hateful Bigots' Label

Missouri Catholic Bishop Criticizes Church-Affiliated Hospital for Extending Benefits to Married Gay Couples; Rejects 'Hateful Bigots' Label

April Breeden (L) places a ring on the finger of her partner, Crystal Peairs, during their wedding ceremony at City Hall in St. Louis, Missouri, November 5, 2014. Missouri's ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, a St. Louis circuit judge ruled Wednesday, adding momentum to efforts in states across the country to legalize gay nuptials. | (Photo: Reuters/Whitney Curtis)

The Roman Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape in Missouri has shared his "deep concern" over a church-affiliated hospital's decision to extend benefits to married gay couples. Bishop James V. Johnston also says that those who defend the traditional teaching of marriage are not "hateful bigots."

"I was not consulted or informed by Mercy Hospital Springfield of its decision to provide same-sex couples marriage benefits. I am deeply concerned. By this decision, Mercy Hospital Springfield calls into question its identity as a Catholic Christian institution," Johnston wrote in a statement to News-Leader.

In the same statement, he says that pastors and leaders who defend marriage as an institution between one man and one woman are sometimes called "hateful bigots" for their position by people who claim to support tolerance.

"Such hypocrisy would be comical if it were not increasingly accompanied by legal and social efforts to coerce Christians to conform to new 'strange teachings,'" he added.

Johnston's statement is in response to a previous article in the News-Leader, where a spokesperson for Mercy Springfield said that the hospital has to extend benefits to all legally married employees due to "recent changes in government regulation."

"Mercy offers a comprehensive benefits package consistent with the markets we serve and the associated legal requirements," spokeswoman Sonya Kullmann said.

"As a Catholic health ministry, Mercy has followed the Church's position on this issue in the past. However, in line with recent changes in government regulations, we will extend benefits to all legally married spouses effective this spring."

Back in November, a Missouri state judge ruled against the state's ban on gay couples from getting married, which effectively legalized same-sex marriage in the city of St. Louis, St. Louis County and Jackson County.

"The court finds and declares that any same-sex couple that satisfies all the requirements for marriage and under Missouri law, other than being of different sexes, is legally entitled to a marriage license," Judge Rex Burlison of the St. Louis Circuit Court wrote at the time.

Johnston argued, however, that Mercy Springfield has failed to clarify the specific government regulations that are forcing it to change its policies.

"While the statement does not specify the 'government regulations' Mercy claims to require this change, no believing Christian worthy of the name should violate God's law because of 'regulations,'" the bishop wrote.

"Our ancestors refused to abandon the faith even when subjected to the cruelty and torture of the Roman Empire, but in our age unspecified 'regulations,' government funds, and fear of public ridicule is sufficient in order to secure the compliance of some."

The hospital reportedly has over 40,000 employees nationwide, and close to 9,000 of them reside in the Springfield area.

Catholic Church leaders have spoken out against Catholic-linked institutions from offering benefits to same-sex spouses before. In November 2014, the Archbishop of Omaha, George Lucas, spoke out against the Jesuit Creighton University in Omaha for altering its policies to provide benefits to gay couples.

"Despite [Creighton president] Father [Timothy] Lannon's claim that this is not a statement of approval of same-sex marriages, this is precisely the message that the university is giving," Lucas wrote at the time. "I am dismayed that the recommendation of the University Benefits Committee is thought to supersede divine law regarding marriage."

Lannon had earlier said: "The extension of benefits is not a statement of approval of same-sex marriages but rather an acknowledgement of our responsibility to serve the needs of faculty and staff who faithfully serve our students and patients every day."

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