Seal of the President of the United States

Seal of the President of the United States Public domain

Has President Obama managed to thread the needle on gay rights and religious freedom, as my colleague David Gibson suggests? Even as federal religiously affiliated contractors are forbidden to deny employment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, they are free to to employ only their co-religionists.

As a matter of principle, it would have been nice if the president had offered some explanation for his Solomonic distinction. All we have–for the first time–is a bald affirmation of George W. Bush’s permission for faith-based organizations to discriminate religiously when hiring employees to perform government services with public funds. How come, Harvard Law grad?

Politically, the signs were that the compromise would not ruffle the liberal base, which seemed overjoyed that, despite the pleas of some religious moderates, no exceptions were made to the prohibition on gender discrimination. Even Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), the leading opponent of the religious preference exception, kept his peace.

On the right, the initial reaction was muted, no doubt out of relief that there would be no belated campaign to live up to Obama’s 2008 campaign promise to do away with the Bush permission. But the Catholic bishops harshed the mellow, saying that the executive order was “unprecedented and extreme and should be opposed.” Ignoring the good news on co-religionist employment, they stressed “the possibility of exclusion from federal contracting if their employment policies or practices reflect religious or moral objections to extramarital sexual conduct.”

Under the circumstances, here’s the kind of situation that could be in the offing. Let’s say your local Catholic Charities has a Catholic employee working in a federally funded program who marries her same-sex partner. When this becomes known, the bishop excommunicates the employee, whereupon she is fired from her job not because of religious objections to her “lifestyle” but because, under the Bush permission, Catholic Charities is entitled to engage in faith-based employment discrimination–and she’s not a Catholic in good standing.

The employee sues. What’s the Obama position?

Categories: Politics

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Mark Silk

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

5 Comments

  1. Michael Skiendzielewski

    Under the circumstances, here’s the kind of situation that could be in the offing. Let’s say your local Catholic Charities has a Catholic employee working in a federally funded program who marries her same-sex partner. When this becomes known, the bishop excommunicates the employee, whereupon she is fired from her job not because of religious objections to her “lifestyle” but because, under the Bush permission, Catholic Charities is entitled to engage in faith-based employment discrimination–and she’s not a Catholic in good standing.

    Yo, Mark…..if you hold on for a month or two, that just might be happening out there in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and their archdiocesan teachers. According to the new, expanded “Catholic or else” conditions of their contract, it won’t be long for an employee to be fired, excommunicated, or burned at the stake for some Christian principle that is not in line with the King’s thinking down there at archdiocesan HQ. Seems like a CIncinnati Catholic teacher could be fired for donations to that woman’s shelter that allowed a “woman priest” to lead a prayer service. That religious exemption thing……Catholic leaders are using it like a sharpened cutlass, leaving many of Christ’s followers in their wake.

    By the way, what the hell is a “Catholic in good-standing”? Reminds me of an incident a couple of years ago when an older Catholic priest in a Philadelphia parish chided a Protestant pastor for using the word “catholic”, intimating that it was improper for the Protestant to use that word to describe his ministry. Problem was solved when a dictionary was dropped off at the Catholic rectory with the definition of “catholic” highlighted for the priest’s study and review.

    Small “c”, Capital “C”………does it really matter?

  2. Michael Skiendzielewski

    From TODAY’S Philadelphia Inquirer, an article on a letter sent to President Obama and signed by the President of Eastern University, just outside of Philadelphia. Illustrates the issue spelled out in your article quite nicely as you will see. Mark, don’t forget, you have a friend in the “City of Brotherly Love.”

    A group of Eastern University alumni has called on the president of the school to remove his signature from a letter urging President Obama to exempt religious institutions from an order that bans discrimination based on sexual identity.

    Robert Duffett, president of the Christian university in St. Davids, says Eastern does not discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender students or employees. He signed the petition, he says, because the school supports the separation of church and state.

    “This means no government has the right to determine theological views and practices of religious institutions,” Duffett wrote in an e-mail to alumni, employees, and students who objected to his signature.

    The June 25 letter to Obama, coauthored by representatives of more than 100 religious-based groups, states: “As you seek to promote the rights of LGBT persons, please also protect the rights of faith-based organizations that simply desire to utilize staffing practices consistent with their deep religious convictions as they partner with the federal government via contracting or subcontracting.”

    Obama on Monday signed an order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating in hiring on the basis of sexual orientation, with no exemption for religious groups.

    Ryan Paetzold, a 2007 Eastern graduate and director of the alumni group OneEastern, said nearly 800 people had signed a letter to Duffett asking him to withdraw his signature. “We were really shocked by this,” Paetzold said.
    He questioned Duffett’s argument about the separation of church and state.
    “We’re confused,” he said. “We don’t believe the right to discriminate has any bearing on that.”

    Paetzold also questioned Duffett’s assertion that Eastern does not discriminate when its faculty handbook states employees can be terminated for “moral turpitude,” of which homosexual conduct is listed as an example.
    “What’s the correlation for students?” asked Paetzold, a Lutheran pastoral candidate from Marlton. “We just want it to be a safe place for students.”

    Duffett said in an interview that the policy is not discriminatory because it also prohibits heterosexual sex outside of marriage. “We’re trying to be evenhanded on that,” he said. He said he was not aware of any employees who have been terminated for either reason.

    The issue at Eastern, Duffett said, is emblematic of a larger conflict facing the country: “We’re really talking about, how do we have freedom of faith and on the other hand the embracing of all people?” Eastern, he said, welcomes all students, including LGBT students. Paetzold said the university has a long way to go.

    Paetzold, who graduated from Eastern with a degree in biblical studies and youth ministry, attended Eastern’s seminary after graduation but transferred to the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Mount Airy, which he said he found more “welcoming and affirming” to LGBT students. An LGBT student group only recently was given club status at Eastern, he added.

    The alumni group wants Eastern to adopt a stronger antidiscrimination policy for students and staff that would protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students.

    About two dozen leaders of other religious-based colleges around the country also signed the letter to President Obama, including Geneva College in western Pennsylvania, College of the Ozarks in Missouri, and Colorado Christian University. Eastern is affiliated with the American Baptist Churches USA.

    The president of Gordon College, a small Christian school in Massachusetts, signed an earlier letter – it was the lone college to be a signatory at the time – and has faced a backlash from some alumni and a review by a regional accrediting agency as a result, according to published reports.

  3. It doesn’t work like that. People do not get excommunicated by their bishop for marrying a person of the same sex, and would not be considered “not Catholics in good standing.” Once a Catholic, always a Catholic — “in good standing” or not. Your thought exercise is flawed.

    This is a bizarre column that not only shows no understanding of how the Catholic Church works, it also shows no understanding of employment law. Are you seriously contending that religious organizations should not be free to hire only people who share their religion?

    • Mark Silk

      A number of conservative Catholics, and the current bishop of Detroit, have declared that Catholics who support gay marriage have “excommunicated themselves.” It far from beyond the realm of possibility that a Catholic bishop will excommunicate a Catholic who enters into a same-sex marriage. As for your second point, Gail, yes, it has been seriously contended — including by leading church-state lawyers — that faith-based organizations should not be able to discriminate on religious grounds when hiring people with public money to perform government services such as drug counseling and tutoring.

    • Michael Skiendzielewski

      Gail, do me a favor? With reference to your “…..This is a bizarre column that not only shows no understanding of how the Catholic Church works….”, the following is requested:

      Please let your readers know the “understanding of how the Catholic Church works” from your study, research and perspective. A billion world-wide Catholics are waiting for the response to that statement.

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