Prominent Catholics have teamed with other religious 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 and gender identity. These religious leaders are attempting to enshrine anti-LGBT discrimination into law, and to further mask it as religious belief. Such an action raises troubling questions on just where the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in America is focused.
Fourteen religious leaders with close ties to the president submitted a letter to the White House on Tuesday, including Catholic Charities CEO Fr. Larry Snyder and Dr. Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America. Michelle Boorstein of The Washington Post reports:
“The letter reminds Obama of his own earlier faith-based opposition to same-sex marriage, as well as the government’s massive partnerships with faith-based social service groups that work on issues including housing, disaster relief and hunger…
“The signers said they supported the executive order — ‘we have great appreciation for your commitment to human dignity and justice, and we share those values with you”’— but said an exemption is essential.”
UPDATE: Another, similar letter asking for a religious exemption, sent to Obama with 138 signatures from religious leaders, has also been made public.
The White House has refused to comment on the letters thus far, though Schneck said he is hopeful that an exemption could be worked out.
Additionally, several bishops who chair committees at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released their own statement against the executive order. Joshua McElwee of the National Catholic Reporter writes:
” ‘Because we do not know how the executive order will define these critically important terms [sexual orientation and gender identity], or if it will provide sufficient (or any) religious freedom protection, we cannot provide substantive comment on the order,’ state the bishops.
” ‘On the other hand, when the U.S. Senate recently passed legislation on the same topic, we raised detailed objections to that legislation,’ they continue, asking those interested to review their previous comments on the Senate legislation…
“Friday’s statement was signed by four U.S. bishops’ committee chairmen: San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, chairman of the bishops’ subcommittee for the promotion and defense of marriage; Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, chairman of their domestic policy committee; Baltimore Archbishop William Lori, chairman of their ad hoc committee for religious liberty; and St. Paul-Minneapolis Archbishop John Nienstedt, chair of their committee on doctrine.”
At least two bishops who signed the letter, Archbishops Cordileone and Nienstedt, have been heavily criticized lately for their aggressive opposition to marriage equality. Cordileone appeared alongside anti-LGBT groups in June at the March for Marriage, even while 30,000 Catholics asked him to forgo the event. Nienstedt is currently being investigated for multiple allegations that he made sexual advances on priests and seminarians.
LGBT advocates have long opposed religious exemptions, and several like the National Center for Lesbian Rights and Get Equal have withdrawn support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in its current form over such exemptions. Chuck Colbert writes in PrideSource about this ongoing debate around exemptions, noting the near absence of such exemptions in previous civil rights legislation. He reports:
“Advocates for LGBT equality maintain the proposed religious exemption, unprecedented in civil rights legislation, would in effect gut the non-discrimination protections…
“On the matter of social conservatives’ efforts to empower discrimination against LGBTs, Jay Michaelson, Ph.D. offered his assessment.
” ‘Religious conservatives have really succeeded at ‘moving the goalposts’ here. Just two years ago, this kind of broad exemption was a huge compromise for the Obama administration, in the context of the Affordable Care Act. Now, ENDA’s backers are offering it up as the default position. That is a huge, silent victory. And we all know what the ultimate goal is: Religious exemptions for anyone who wants one, including corporations and individuals. That would represent a tragic erosion of the rule of law’…
” ‘Employment non-discrimination is vitally important, but at what cost?…Hopefully, progressive members of Congress will insist on an appropriate, narrow exemption for churches and religious functionaries, while rejecting this over-broad one that would leave hospital orderlies, school cafeteria workers and shopping mall security guards without protection.’ “
After last week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Hobby Lobby case, the idea that corporations could discriminate against employees based on their sexual orientation or gender identity does not seem so far fetched. You can read Bondings 2.0 initial reporting on the Court’s decision and potential impacts by clicking here.
Michael Sean Winters, in his third post on the proposed executive order, asks a pivotal question: “Why do we need to have this fight?…Why do the leaders of the Church want to have this fight, on this issue?” Reading up on the USCCB’s backgrounder on ENDA, Winters explores why the bishops seek religious exemptions in the first place. Apparently, they are concerned that employers would provide healthcare and “other fringe benefits” to same-gender partners. Of this, Winters writes:
“Health coverage is not properly termed a ‘fringe benefit’ by leaders of a Church that has repeatedly taught that access to health care is a basic human right. Our nation has a particularly quirky way of delivering health care coverage, through employers. It makes no sense, to be sure, but it is what it is. But, it is not clear to me how the providing of such benefits can be seen as ‘facilitating or cooperating with same-sex sexual relationships.’ The employee engaged in a same sex relationship is not looking for approval or permission from his employer. He or she is looking for health care benefits from the employer. If there is a heterosexual, married couple, they may, on their free time, be engaged in any manner of activities that the Church would not endorse, but we do not investigate that.”
Looking to the past, when Cardinal William Levada, formerly of San Francisco, negotiated with that city when extensive non-discrimination policies were passed, Winters believes the bishops need not have fought at all:
“I do not see how hiring someone who is a good teacher or a good counselor or a good cook, and who keeps their private life private, requires us to sniff around their bedrooms…
“Twelve or even ten years ago, if the leadership of the USCCB had followed the +Levada model…I suspect we would be in a better place, the culture wars would be diminished, and the Church would not have the aggressively litigious face it wears today…The culture warriors in the conference decided that instead of trying to balance the dignity and legitimate interests of gay people in gaining access to benefits, we were going to dig in, to fight, draw a line in the sand.”
Winters points to younger Catholics’ views as the best evidence that the bishops’ unceasing opposition to LGBT rights is becoming fringe itself:
“I encourage them to go to any place that young people hang out and ask them their thoughts on same sex relationships. Those young people do not feel threatened by gay people. Those young people will not discourse on the threats to religious liberty. Those young people will ask simple, and better, questions such as: ‘Why not help people gain access to health care?’ That is a question the USCCB has failed to ask, let alone answer, in this situation. If the conference did ask that question, they would be less likely to take to the barricades.”
It remains an open question how Catholic institutions, and specifically those like Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services which contract with the federal government, will respond to the upcoming executive order. For inspiration, they could turn to Catholic Vice President Joe Biden who many credit with moving the Obama administration towards greater LGBT equality. Hopefully, cooler hearts and clearer minds will prevail and realize the common good is far better advanced by protecting LGBT rights and continuing the good work of the Church in relationship with the government.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry
National Catholic Reporter, “Faith leaders call for religious exemption from LGBT executive order“