A South Carolina county councilwoman has apologized for remarks she made at a land management committee discussion considering whether to allow a Catholic church to expand. She had said she would oppose the expansion because she sees “hate” in the Catholic Church, criticizing the Church’s pro-life position and its lack of female clergy, which she called “an affront to my dignity and all of womankind.”
On Monday the Beaufort County Council heard a request from Saint Gregory the Great Church in Bluffton to rezone land for a proposed expansion.
The website of Saint Gregory the Great Church, whose pastor is named Father Ronald Cellini, reports it is seeing “unprecedented growth of this parish family,” increasing by more than 5,000 souls since 1995.
During a land management committee discussion, Laura Von Harten explained she would oppose the request of the parish at the full council meeting later in the week. Although Von Harten does not serve on the land committee, she took the floor to make plain her views about the Catholic Church.
According to the Beaufort Gazette, she cited “human rights issues” as a reason for her opposition.
"I could not have Father Cellini's job or the Pope's job if I wanted it and it's an affront to my dignity as a woman and all of womankind,” said Von Harten, who is reportedly a Unitarian Universalist.
“I don't want to support anything that will perpetuate that kind of ideology that would prevent me from being an active leader in an organization, and I don't like the way they want to control women's uteruses, and I just don't want to do anything that would perpetuate that.”
If land must be rezoned, she said, “I want it to be to create a loving inclusive mixed-use community and that's the only way I will give up rural land… I just have to vote in favor of love and against hate when I see hate.”
Bill Donohue, President of the Catholic League, went so far as to call for the councilwoman’s resignation.
“Without the slightest provocation, Laura Von Harten decided to bash Catholicism,” Donohue said in a Wednesday statement. “This suggests an animus so deep as to call into question her fitness for public service. She should do more than recuse herself on matters Catholic—she should resign from her post as councilwoman. There is no legitimate role for bigots in public life.”
Following criticism of her remarks, Von Harten on Tuesday said she would abstain from any votes on St. Gregory the Great’s rezoning.
She made what she called a formal apology for her remarks on Wednesday, saying her reference to human rights pertain to “the Catholic Church as a political entity, with a seat at the United Nations, but I acknowledge that I offended individuals in my own community.”
The Holy See in fact has a permanent observer mission to the United Nations but no voting seat.
Saying she intended no infringement of anyone’s religious freedom and did not intend to disparage any individual member of the Church, she added:
“I respect the rights of all people to worship in the church of their choosing. Given the history of persecution endured by members of the Catholic Church, I regret my insensitivity on this matter.”
Saying she was “truly sorry” for having “interjected” her concerns about the Catholic Church into a zoning discussion, she claimed she had “meant only an extension of my overall opposition to development that restricts access on the basis of factors such as race, age or gender but it was an inappropriate forum.”
“Please be assured that I have been reminded of the importance of separation of church and state in matters of land use, and have learned a great deal from this incident,” Von Harten continued, asking for forgiveness and pledging “to approach my duties as councilwoman from a more restrained and objective viewpoint.”