A number of religious leaders and academics, including some with ties to Catholic colleges, are urging President Barack Obama to include religious freedom protections in an upcoming executive order which would essentially ban any discrimination based on sexual orientation among federal contractors.
Stephen Schneck, the director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America who also served in “Catholics for Obama,” as well as Father Larry Snyder, the president of Catholic Charities USA who is set to become vice president for mission at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota next year, signed a letter with twelve religious and academic leaders urging Obama to include a religious exemption in the executive order.
The public letter to the president stated:
[A]n executive order that does not include a religious exemption will significantly and substantively hamper the work of some religious organizations that are best equipped to serve in common purpose with the federal government. In a concrete way, religious organizations will lose financial funding that allows them to serve others in the national interest due to their organizational identity. When the capacity of religious organizations is limited the common good suffers.
The letter assumed that a religious exemption would only ensure that religious organizations would not be automatically disqualified in procuring government contracts because of their religious beliefs.
This order, while not seemingly an immediate danger to Catholic colleges, may become one in the future. According to Fr. Thomas Reese, writing at the National Catholic Reporter, “there is little doubt that if the administration is successful dealing with contracts, grants will soon be on the firing line.”
The overwhelming majority of Catholic colleges receive federal money. Fr. Reese added that he believed that the administration would likely not approve any exemption that applied to colleges and universities.
In an interview with the Reporter, Schneck reportedly said that while ending discrimination is a laudable goal, “the order should be crafted in such a way that does not undermine the very religious identity that inspires Catholics to create their institutions of public service in the first place.”
He continued, “it would be catastrophic for America's and the world's neediest if Catholic institutions had to shut down large portions of their mission because the Obama administration could not figure out how to balance the anti-discrimination rights of both religious identity and LGBT identity.”
Boston College law professor Cathleen Kaveny reportedly said she believed that we will likely see "more religious liberty lawsuits on the horizon.”
It would hardly be the first time that the Obama administration clashed with the religious freedom interests of the Catholic Church.
In 2011, the Obama administration reportedly withdrew funding that typically went to the U.S. bishops’ campaign against human trafficking following complaints that the campaign did not provide contraception or abortion services.
The bishops also strongly opposed the administration’s stance in the Hosanna Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission case which ended with the Supreme Court unanimously ruling that religious institutions have the right to hire and fire for mission without government interference.
And the bishops have stood strongly opposed to the HHS mandate for several years. The fate of nonprofit institutions regarding the mandate is still being decided in the courts, but the recent Supreme Court decisions in favor of Hobby Lobby and upholding an injunction from the mandate for evangelical Wheaton College may portend a favorable ruling from the high court.
A White House spokesperson reportedly said they didn’t know when the executive order might be signed and that they were continuing to listen to “interested groups” on the issue.
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