Denver Theology on Tap inspires controversy, venue change

The Archdiocese of Denver's Theology on Tap program was compelled to seek a new venue after a lecture on religious liberty by Auxiliary Bishop James D. Conley reportedly caused controversy among some patrons and staff.

“This was a misunderstanding and we hope to be able to work with the group again in the future,” Stoney’s Bar and Grill owner Stoney Jesseph told CNA on Feb. 10.

On Jan. 26 Bishop Conley spoke to hundreds of young adults at the bar, which is less than five blocks from Denver’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. His topic was “Atheocracy and the Battle for Religious Liberty in America.”

Shortly after the talk, however, organizers were told to find a different location for the program because of its “controversial” content and the fact that that some of the bar staff said they would refuse to work the event again.

“It’s ironic that the talk itself pertains so well to what happened,” said Chris Stefanick, director of the archdiocese’s office for youth, young adults and campus ministry who helps run the event.

Stefanick said he was surprised to hear Jesseph's desire to work with Theology on Tap in the future given that the archdiocese was told by the restaurant that the gathering was “too controversial.”

“Those were the words they used,” he said.
But he suggested that Jesseph’s business partners may have had a role in the decision. “I don’t think it was all on Stoney’s shoulders. Frankly, if it was just up to Stoney, this never would have happened.”

However, for “whatever reason,” he added, “I think the establishment has made it clear that they’d rather not have a public, Catholic event there.”

Theology on Tap is an ongoing outreach program of the archdiocese. It meets in a bar, Stefanick explained, because it intends to provide “a non-threatening place to gather with friends” for Catholics to “draw people into the faith.”

“It’s also a great social connecting point for people to realize they’re not alone.”

The January event was in a section of the bar where other patrons wouldn’t be able to hear what the bishop was saying, added Stefanick, who thought it was only the appearance of a man in a Roman collar that provoked a reaction.

One bar patron, who Stefanick believes was not in a position to hear the talk, shouted obscenities at the bishop.

“The people at the talk couldn’t hear, because the way the amplifiers were set, but the bishop heard him and I heard him.”

Stefanick clarified that he thinks Stoney’s Bar and Grill has a right to refuse to host anyone they want.

“But they should expect those who are refused to react accordingly, and they shouldn’t be surprised at the angry e-mails and the Catholic groups who no longer want to go there.”

Jeanette DeMelo, the Archdiocese of Denver’s communications director, echoed Stefanick’s comments.

“A local bar is discriminating against our group and the content of our talks. For this bar, it’s a business decision and it’s acceptable for them to make that decision,” she told CNA Feb. 13.

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“The bar has a right to be what it is, a sports bar with a noncontroversial atmosphere, which allows anyone and everyone to feel at home – except Catholics in collars.”

She lamented what she called a “double standard” in public opinion. The business decisions of secular businesses like Stoney’s Bar and Grill are seen as acceptable, while the Catholic Church is not allowed similar self-determination like refusing federal mandates for insurance coverage of contraception and sterilization.

“Catholics must make our stand – with charity but with great clarity. We can’t allow ourselves to be pushed out of the public square,” DeMelo said.

Stefanick added in his comments to CNA that the event draws a crowd. “There were about 300 people there on a night that otherwise would be kind of dead,” he said.

Theology on Tap’s next meeting will take place Feb. 15 at 7 p.m. at Katie Mullen’s Irish Restaurant and Pub on Denver’s 16th Street Mall. Theology professor Tim Gray will speak on the topic “Religionless Christianity,” in response to a popular YouTube video which professes love for Jesus but hate for religion.

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