How Will Catholic Institutions Respond to Obama's Executive Order?

President Barack Obama

It looks very likely that President Barack Obama will sign an executive order next Monday requiring that federal contractors cannot discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.  In doing so, the president may be in for some pushback from Catholic organizations, depending upon how the religious exemptions in the executive order are defined.

Jesuit Father Thomas Reese, writing in The National Catholic Reporterobserved that

“. . . . the new requirement may affect Catholic Relief Services, Catholic hospitals, Catholic education and other Catholic charities that receive federal funds. These institutions normally provide services to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people without discrimination, but problems have arisen with regards to adoptions by gay couples and spousal benefits for gay employees.”

Father Thomas Reese, SJ

Father Thomas Reese, SJ

Fr. Reese recounts the history, at the state level, of Catholic agencies cutting or closing their services rather than agree to abide by non-discrimination policies:

“. . .  in 2006, Catholic adoption programs were closed in Massachusetts and San Francisco because the state and city said the agencies could not receive funds if they refused to sponsor children with gay couples. Dioceses in Illinois pulled out of adoption services for the same reason in 2011. . . .

“In 2010, the Washington archdiocese also got out of the adoption business when gay marriage became legal in the city. It was also threatened with the loss of funding to help the poor when the city council required that employers with city contracts provide spousal benefits to gay employees. Instead, the charities eliminated spousal benefits for all future employees. Since heterosexual employees would not receive spousal benefits, the agencies could not be accused of discrimination.”

But he also notes a case that has long been forgotten.  The case shows a rare example of pragmatism, especially coming from a bishop who would eventually become the prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  Fr. Reese explains:

‘In 1997, San Francisco Archbishop William Levada tried a different approach. He allowed Catholic agencies to offer benefits to one other person living in the employee’s household, which might be a dependent parent, child, sibling or partner. Since the focus was not on domestic partners, he found this acceptable. But once gay marriage was legal, this solution fell apart.’

We need that type of pragmatism again in the church.  It is a shame that the culture war mentality has heightened so much that church leaders sometimes prefer a “scorched earth” approach rather than seeing how they can effectively interact with governmental regulations.


Michael Sean Winters

Michael Sean Winters

National Catholic Reporter columnist Michael Sean Winters provides some political background of Obama’s expected executive order:

‘The Senate has already passed a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, but the House is unlikely to take action on the bill (or on any other bill for that matter). So, Obama has decided to do what he can by executive fiat. . . .

‘If the new rule tracks with ENDA, there should be no worries. There is nothing in ENDA that violates Church teaching. The key question will be how robust the religious exemptions to the rule are.”

While I agree with Winters that nothing in ENDA violates Church teaching, unfortunately, the U.S. Catholic bishops did not see it that way, and they ended up opposing ENDA.

But Winters’ analysis takes a nasty turn, as he discusses the recent firings of gay and lesbian people from Catholic schools because of their decisions to marry legally.  He states:

“It is clear to me that teachers fall under the ministerial exemption: The passing on of the faith is about as essential a task as any religion has. I do not see any reason why a janitor’s sexual orientation matters one whit to anyone. And, while I prefer a “live and let live” approach to gay employees at our Catholic institutions, it is far from clear that gay rights advocates will accept such an approach. And, if a Catholic school has an employee who trumpets their deviation from Church teaching, on this or any issue, the pastor or principal should be concerned.”

First of all, if teachers fall under the ministerial exemption, then what are we to make of teachers in Catholic schools who are not Catholic.  Carla Hale, fired from her job as a physical education instructor, is a Methodist, and worked for 19 years at the school, even though her faith life was not in accord with Catholic teaching.  Should she get a ministerial exemption?

What about music teachers and band leaders, several of whom were fired?  Should what they teach be considered “passing on of the faith?”

As for “an employee who trumpets their deviation from Church teaching” what are we to do in the case of Ms. Hale whose relationship was merely mentioned in an obituary? What are we to do with other cases where administrators knew of teachers’ relationships for several years before a legal wedding took place?  Furthermore, does Winters mean that it is okay to deviate from Church teaching as long as one does that secretly?  The past decade of the sexual abuse crisis in the Church has been a painfully difficult lesson in what harm and damage secrecy breeds.

What I find discouraging in Winters’ analysis is that he seems to imply that any gay person living an honest life is a “gay advocate,” a role he seems to belittle.  In one spot, he talks about “a Catholic school’s reluctance to hire an openly gay advocate as a teacher.”  I’ve read a lot about and examined the cases of the people fired, and not one of these individuals appeared to be a “gay advocate.”  To me the term is intended to arouse fear and passion, rather than to describe reality.

What types of religious exemptions do you think would be appropriate for President Obama to include in his executive order.  Offer your thoughts in the “Comments” section of this post.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

Related resource

Catholicism, Employment, and LGBT Issues



5 replies
  1. Stephen Sottile
    Stephen Sottile says:

    If the RCC cannot accept the law then let it stop accepting public funds. There are other non bigoted agencies that will gladly fill in the slack without the baggage of intolerence and discrimination.

  2. Barbara Marian
    Barbara Marian says:

    Fairness for all employees. Non-discrimination in all employment policies and benefits. Non-negotiable. No exemptions. Period. Either it’s the right and ethical and constitutional thing to do in America and what is moral and just in the church rooted in faith, hope and charity — or it’s not. To my mind there is no gray area on this one and no “shingling the fog” to try to hide from the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

  3. Teresa Yip
    Teresa Yip says:

    In Taiwan, some groups have been advocating for legal reform to re-define family as those who wish to form relationships for permanently living together, beyond the traditional blood-ties. It seems more helpful to extend benefits to a family beyond a couple, provided that people are free to form a family.


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  1. […] leaders in calling on President Barack Obama to include extensive religious exemptions in his promised executive order which will state that federal contractors cannot discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation […]

  2. […] advocates are worried and some believe the debate will depend on whether President Obama signs a promised executive order protecting LGBT federal workers triggering new lawsuits. Religion News Service […]

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