San Francisco Catholics upset at planned Easter event by gay activists

Friday, March 19, 1999

San Francisco Catholics are denouncing the city government for allowing a troupe of gay, lesbian and transgender activists to use a block in the Castro neighborhood for its 20th anniversary party on Easter.

The San Francisco Catholic Archdiocese has demanded that the San Francisco Board of Supervisors yank the permit for the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence celebration set for April 4. The Sisters dress in colorful nuns' habits, wear makeup and satirize the assumptions of the Catholic faith. The Sisters also raise money for AIDS awareness programs and the homeless and campaign to stop hate crimes against minorities. Officials for the Archdiocese, however, say the Sisters perform sacrilegious acts and should not be allowed to do so in public on Easter.

On March 1, the supervisors unanimously invalidated a decision by the city's Department of Parking and Traffic to deny a permit to the Sisters. Late last week the Catholic Archdiocese's newsletter harshly criticized the supervisors and compared the Sisters' planned anniversary party to “neo-Nazis” celebrating on the Jewish holiday of Passover or the Ku Klux Klan marching on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.

Tom Ammiano, president of the Board of Supervisors, defended the board's decision.

“This was by the book, and you can't deny a group access because another group doesn't like them,” Ammiano told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Aside from First Amendment issues, I do support the nuns. People have a right to say they don't like the nuns, but they don't have the right to say they're not deserving of due process.”

Ammiano also took to task the Archdiocese's statements comparing the Sisters to fascists. “What's a little dangerous to me was some of the inquisitional rhetoric, especially comparing the whole thing to Nazis, etc.,” he said. The Sisters are “camp, which it to be respected. What next, ban the Mime Troupe because they're iconoclastic?”

However, Maurice E. Healy, communications director for the Archdiocese, says that the Sisters have mocked the Pope and derided Catholics in general.

“We take it very seriously,” Healy told the Chronicle. “The organization over the years has been one of mockery. If you want to make a simile, consider people dressing up as Buddhist monks and doing things, or people dressing up as rabbis and doing something. You can see it does give great offense.”

Yesterday the Chronicle published an editorial in support of the board's decision to grant the permit to the Sisters.

“Charity, honesty and fun are at the heart of it, not perfunctory notions of good taste and respect,” the paper opined. “The archdiocese bridles at the timing of the street fair set for Easter Sunday. But this day also is the 20th anniversary of the ersatz nuns.”

Mark Leno, a member of the Board of Supervisors, said he thought that comments from the Archdiocese were unproductive and disingenuous.

“I not only do not think their comments were helpful, but I think they exacerbated the situation,” Leno said. “It is also inaccurate to analogize the Sisters event to a KKK march or neo-Nazi celebration. They are a satirical, comical, theatrical group that in no way exhibits anger or hatred and never threatens the well-being of anyone else. The Sisters if anything truly exhibit the spirit of a religious order, it is all about taking care of others in need.”

Leno added that the board's decision “was in no way intended to offend the Catholic church or our Catholic neighbors.”

Healy said a formal request by the Archdiocese for the supervisors to revisit their decision might come next week.

Leno said he doubted such a request would change anything. “I don't know what the Archdiocese can do beyond lobbying the members of the board to revisit the issue, but I don't see that happening.”