If you’re an atheist on Twitter, and you have personal reasons for opposing the Catholic Church, there’s a good chance you’ve posted some jokes and brief commentaries that look nasty in hindsight. Jokes like “Abortion is morally indefensible to Catholic priests bcuz it results in fewer children to rape.” Or, on Ash Wednesday, “Go tell a Catholic they have dirt on their forehead.”
Now imagine it’s several years later and you’ve been appointed by the governor to a committee focusing on women’s issues. It’s a perfect chance for you to be a voice of reason on an issue that you deeply care about.
But for Gail Gordon Donegan, those tweets are coming back to haunt her.
Donegan was appointed by Gov. Ralph Northam to be part of the Virginia Council on Women. But the Diocese of Richmond is already calling for her resignation (as if they’re a legitimate voice of moral authority).
“We expect anyone appointed to a council, board or commission for the Commonwealth to be respectful of all faith groups and civil in his or her public comments,” said [Bishop Michael] Burbridge. “Her statements are offensive to Catholics and our faith.”
Burbridge isn’t wrong about wanting state-appointed representatives to be respectful of all faith groups, but there’s a huge difference between criticizing the Catholic Church for sex abuse (which she did) and disrespecting Catholics (which she didn’t). He makes it sound like Donegan is going to be anti-faith on the committee without offering any proof of that.
Billy Atwell, the chief communications officer for the diocese, added that Donegan’s statements are “offensive to human dignity and fail to reflect the depth of character one would expect of a leader in our Commonwealth.”
Again, nothing Donegan said is as bad as things Catholic priests have done. A guy who works for an organization that covered for child molesters for decades is in no position to stake a moral high ground or suggest Donegan offended “human dignity.”
Keep in mind that devout evangelical Christians — and Catholic priests — openly and genuinely believe that people who don’t accept the divinity of Christ are going to burn in Hell for eternity. That’s waaaaaaay more offensive than anything Donegan wrote. But because they say it in the pulpit, while she used Twitter, they’re pretending that she’s the horrible one. We’re so used to the depravity of religious beliefs that the threat of eternal torture for Jews, Muslims, atheists, etc. is just accepted as normal.
(For the record, I would be fine with religious people on the women’s council, regardless of their beliefs, as long as their decisions and discussions were centered around evidence and doing what’s best for women across the state. I suspect Donegan would say the same thing.)
As for Donegan, she’s said that her family has good reason to oppose the Catholic Church: Her father was allegedly beaten in Catholic foster homes. Her husband is a former Catholic.
She’s still on the committee. For now. Northam’s spokesperson said he doesn’t “condone this language” but didn’t say she’d be kicked out. (You would hope that a governor whose past has come back to haunt him would be a little more lenient with someone getting condemned over jokes she made nearly a decade ago.)
I want to know how she plans to treat her religious colleagues on that board. I want to know that she’s going to work on behalf of the women of Virginia regardless of their beliefs. There’s nothing in her tweets that suggests she would treat some women poorly because they happened to be religious. There’s no reason to think she’d impose her beliefs on anyone else while working for a government committee.
That’s what certain religious people do. Not atheists.