Op-ed: The Catholic Case Against Religious Exemptions

By Francis DeBernardo

Originally published on Advocate.com July 21 2014 6:17 AM ET

In post-Hobby Lobby America, the question of whether religious exemptions should be included in laws prohibiting employment discrimination against LGBT people has increased in complexity. It used to be that religious leaders and lawmakers could strike a comfortable balance of protecting faith groups’ rights to self-determination and LGBT people’s rights to equal opportunity. But the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision disturbed that balance, and now the Employment Non-Discrimination Act may be gutted by including overly broad religious exemptions. President Obama’s expected executive order today barring anti-LGBT employment discrimination by federal contractors reportedly will not include these exemptions.

Because the Hobby Lobby decision broadened the scope of what kind of entities can claim religious exemptions, several national organizations working for LGBT equality now fear that such provisions in ENDA will render the proposed law’s protections meaningless. As a result, they have withdrawn support for the bill. Similarly, the Supreme Court case seems to have emboldened some conservative religious leaders to lobby Obama to include strong exemption language in his upcoming executive order.

While the Hobby Lobby case focused on insurance coverage for contraceptives, a number of commentators have noted that the decision may easily be applied to religious objections to LGBT issues. Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said, “If a private company can take its own religious beliefs and say you can't have access to certain health care, it’s a hop, skip, and a jump to an interpretation that a private company could have religious beliefs that LGBT people are not equal or somehow go against their beliefs and therefore fire them.” And Equally Blessed, the Catholic LGBT equality coalition, detailed some of the potential disasters that can spring from this case: “This ruling might open the door for corporations not to provide benefits to employees in same-sex marriages, or not to cover appropriate health care services for transgender employees.”

So, while corporations don’t pray, corporations are now given the same exemptions that used to be the privilege of legitimately established religious groups. This expansion of privilege is far beyond what has long been considered fair religious exemptions for institutions whose primary purpose is salvation, not profits.

As a practicing Catholic, I see that such an expansion cheapens the position of faith in society. Faith is about developing an intimate relationship with a personal God and reflecting that relationship in my attitudes and practices toward other people. Faith is about sacrificing some privileges because of wanting to live in accord with principles. Faith is not about having access to government contracts. Faith is not about forcing people to live by an employer’s personal beliefs, no matter how sincerely those beliefs may be held.  

Hobby Lobby’s approach to religious exemptions diminishes the importance of persons and relationships in religion. Because the court favored institutions’ interests over individuals’ concerns, it has actually harmed religious faith. It provided power to institutions, but did not respect human consciences and souls, which are the mechanisms people use to apprehend God in the world and in their lives. As Justice Ginsburg stated in her dissenting opinion, “The exercise of religion is characteristic of natural persons, not artificial legal entities.”

Political conservatives are not the only ones who have religion. So, it should be no surprise that one of the strongest groups asking that religious exemptions not be included in ENDA and the executive order are religious leaders themselves. In one letter sent to President Obama by 100 religious leaders, their request to exclude exemptions came from a religious belief in nondiscrimination and human dignity. They stated, “Increasing the obstacles faced by those at the margins is precisely the opposite of what public service can and should do, and is precisely the opposite of the values we stand for as people of faith.”

Moreover, not all religious people feel that their faith is threatened by policies that promote LGBT equality and reproductive health for women. In fact, for many religious people, it is indeed their faith that motivates their advocacy for these principles. So, we are left with the question: Just whose religious liberty is being protected and whose is being infringed upon when we allow for broad exemptions?

For example, many Catholics oppose the bishops’ calls for religious exemptions because they uphold the lesser-known, but more central, Catholic principle that an individual must ultimately be ruled by one’s conscience, not by the dictates of doctrine or authorities. So most Catholic lay people respect lesbian and gay people’s dreams to be married and a transgender person’s decision to transition, and they oppose the interference of government or religious institutions to discriminate against what they see as personal and religiously-based decisions.

When we ask, what is a particular denomination’s view on hiring LGBT people, there is likely to be a variety of opinions, each based on principles of faith, about what is the just and moral thing to do in this situation. While Catholic bishops seem reluctant to hire LGBT people, over the past two years we’ve seen that Catholics in the pews support the employment of LGBT in Catholic institutions.

As the Catholics of the Equally Blessed coalition wrote to the Senate last year when ENDA was being debated: “The bishops do not speak for the majority of your Catholic constituents, many of whom believe, as we do, that the religious exemptions in the current draft of the legislation are not too narrow, as the bishops contend, but far too broad.”

My Catholic faith teaches me that all people have human dignity, that all people are equal. The Catholic social justice tradition teaches me that the right to employment is a sacred and basic human right and should be respected by individuals and institutions such as government. My respect for religion teaches me to value the diversity of religious opinions, as well as the diversity of human beings. From these perspectives, both ENDA and the expected executive order are better served without any religious exemptions included.

 

FRANCIS DEBERNARDO, executive director of New Ways Ministry, blogs at Bondings 2.0.