This week Vice President Joe Biden called for a renewed legislative push to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Action (ENDA), just as the Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.. These events, and others in the country, are the result of an ongoing debate in America about religious liberty. This debate is important for Catholic LGBT advocates because judicial rulings and legislative developments on seemingly unrelated matters do impact the lives of LGBT people. Below are summaries about several religious liberty issues, and you can read more with the provided links.
Employment Non-Discrimination Act
Vice President Biden, a Catholic, robustly criticized Congress’ failure to pass ENDA at the Human Rights Campaign’s gala last Saturday. ENDA would provide nationwide employment protections for people based upon their sexual orientation and gender identity, but failed in the House of Representatives after passing the Senate in 2013. The Advocate reported on his speech to the HRC crowd:
” ‘It’s close to barbaric,’ Biden said of it still being legal to fire someone for being gay or lesbian. ‘Pass ENDA now,’ he demanded of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, calling it ‘outrageous we’re even debating this.’ …
” ‘The single most basic of all human rights is the right to decide who you love, it is the single basic building block…Hate can never never be defended because it’s a so-called “cultural norm.” I’ve had it up to here with cultural norms.’ “
Hobby Lobby Lawsuit
While the Hobby Lobby lawsuit concerns private businesses and healthcare coverage, the plaintiffs are arguing from the vantage point of religious liberty. Hobby Lobby’s Christian owners want to be exempt from providing birth control coverage to employees as part of the company’s health insurance, on the grounds that birth control violates their religious belief. The New York Times editorialized:
“These companies are not religious organizations, nor are they affiliated with religious organizations. But the owners say they are victims of an assault on religious liberty because they personally disapprove of certain contraceptives. They are wrong, and the Supreme Court’s task is to issue a decisive ruling saying so. The real threat to religious liberty comes from the owners trying to impose their religious beliefs on thousands of employees.
“The legal question is whether the contraception coverage rule violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which says government may not ‘substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion’ unless the burden is necessary to further a ‘compelling government interest’ and does so by ‘the least restrictive means.’ …
“If there is a Supreme Court decision in favor of these businesses, the ripple effect could be enormous. One immediate result would be to encourage other companies to seek exemptions from other health care needs, like blood transfusions, psychiatric care, vaccinations or anesthesia. It could also encourage toxic measures like the one vetoed last month by Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona that would have given businesses and individuals a broad right to deny services to same-sex couples in the name of religion. The Supreme Court cannot go there.”
The eventual ruling in this case could have far reaching impacts on the lives of LGBT people. Catholic schools and parishes have cited religious liberty arguments to justify firing LGBT people, or even those who simply support equal rights. You can read these cases in the ‘Employment Issues‘ category to the right.
While it is clear that ENDA would not infringe upon religious liberty, this has still been a powerful talking point by anti-LGBT activists to stall progress. While every state which has passed marriage equality included strong religious liberty protections in the laws, the Catholic bishops and anti-LGBT activists have continued to pick the religious liberty fight. Hopefully, more Catholics in politics and policymaking will speak out like the vice president and Representative Louis Ruiz of Kansas who called that state’s non-discrimination bill a “no-brainer.”
Michael Peppard, a theology professor at Fordham University, writes in the Washington Post about the false cries of “religious liberty”:
“But U.S. history, which juxtaposes firm anti-discrimination laws and a robust religious liberty tradition, has shown that the price of citizenship is drawing distinctions: finding footholds on supposedly slippery slopes…
“Asking and answering these questions has been essential to Americans’ governance. Some civil rights are limited; some religious consciences are infringed. We may or may not decide, in the end, that baking a cake and photographing a wedding are sufficiently different interactions with the event to suggest anti-discrimination protections for one and conscience protections for the other. But the process of making such decisions is worth the effort.
Doing so need not entail an apocalyptic war of religion vs. state-sponsored secularism. Rather, we would continue to tinker with a delicate balance. In terms of religious pluralism, the American experiment remains unique, with more diversity in Washington or New York — or even just one of its wards or boroughs — than in most countries. Fashioning social order out of such variety is not a process to be taken for granted. The more civil rights expand and deepen, the more carefully responsibilities must be negotiated and articulated. E pluribus unum is ever fragile.
“Drawing distinctions to maintain a precise balance of religious conscience protections and publicly accommodated civil rights is neither a sign of fastidious hairsplitting nor a distraction from prophetically proclaimed truths on either side. Rather, it is necessary to preserve and perfect our experiment in diversity.”
“The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has a real dilemma facing them: They have chosen to make domestic religious liberty a matter of intense focus. We have had two ‘Fortnights for Freedom,’ testimony before Congress, countless essentially political campaigns launched from the pulpits and in church bulletins. Very little effort has been made to even recognize the good faith of those who disagree with us. The whole effort has been, shall we say, very un-Francis…as the debate on religious liberty seems likely to shift to gay rights, I fear that our Church will make itself look like a paragon of intolerance in the coming months…We must resist, on Gospel grounds, the prospect of religious liberty becoming an anti-gay fight…
“We are Catholics…Our Catholic identity, in a pluralistic culture, should not become a battering ram with which we hit others over the head. It should not be a spur to ideological purity. In our Church’s long history, we see, instead, countless saints who evidenced that moral friction that proved a bump for the mockers and haters and killers. I hope in the coming months, our bishops will resist turning our understandable and laudable concern for religious liberty into a kind of anti-gay campaign. We all deserve better.”
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry