Last summer, the Obama Administration proposed a rule adding sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI—get used to the acronym) to the list of classes protected against discrimination by federal contractors. In so doing, it built upon other anti-discrimination executive orders issued by Presidents Johnson and Nixon. The difference between the Obama Administration’s rule and those promulgated by its predecessors is that the latter explicitly provided exemptions for religious employers, who were permitted to engage in mission-sensitive hiring even if they provided goods and services to the federal government. Under the old rules, a faith-based organization could hire co-religionists to work, for example, in a federally-funded Welfare-to-Work program (and, of course, could quite rightly not discriminate in providing benefits to clients). Under the new rules, finalized in April, there is no exemption for faith-based organizations, many of whom would seem to have to abandon their historical commitments to sexual fidelity in the context of man-woman marriage if they wish to continue to be eligible for federal contracts.
And now the other (or another, perhaps the first of many) shoe is about to drop: there is word that the rule applied to federal contractors will soon be extended to grant recipients, at least in respect to one area of federal activity, humanitarian aid. As this move has not received a lot of attention (perhaps designedly so), it is not clear how far-reaching this change is. At the moment, it seems relatively safe to say that eligibility for some grants will likely be conditioned on a renunciation of traditional religious teaching (not just Christian, but also Jewish and Muslim) regarding human sexuality.
What prevents the Obama Administration from extending this requirement to additional categories of grant recipients is not at all clear. Or rather it is clear: only pushback from the friends of religious freedom will prevent the federal government from eventually conditioning all federal aid on “non-discrimination,” even at the expense of fidelity to traditional religious teaching.
How far could this eventually go? Consider, for example, the extraordinarily heavy dependence of most colleges and universities (there are a few noteworthy exceptions, among them Grove City, Hillsdale, and Wyoming Catholic) on federal aid. Suppose that colleges and universities that included behavioral expectations in their statements of faith were told that they could not hold their employees to these expectations, as doing so would constitute SOGI-based discrimination. Some might stand firm and join the proud ranks of the non-federally funded. Others, I fear, would feel compelled to assure their (merely) institutional survival by giving in. The result would likely be a much less genuinely diverse array of higher education options and a loss of a great intellectual and moral source of religious life in this country.
And that’s not the end of it. Don’t forget the brief exchange between Justice Samuel Alito and Solicitor General Donald Verrilli in the oral argument for the Obergefell v. Hodges (same-sex marriage) case. Under questioning by Justice Alito, Verrilli conceded that the tax-exempt status of religious institutions that did not recognize same-sex marriage could or would be an issue. For those who regard tax exempt status not as an acknowledgement of freedom from state interference but as an instrument of public policy, aimed at promoting the public good (as they conceive it), it’s only a few baby steps from denying government funding to revoking a tax exemption. I’d like to think that many of us will continue to give at the same level to the charities we favor regardless of whether we receive a tax break for doing so, but not all of us will. At the very least, roughly 30% of that charitable contribution would likely be taken by taxes, and that’s only from the contributor. Another chunk would be taken from the formerly tax-exempt institution. Is your favorite faith-based institution prepared to deal with the loss of a significant portion of its annual budget?
Some might argue that it’s healthy and bracing for faith-based institutions to get back to basics, to have a fresh and direct experience of what it means to be a pilgrim, sojourner, or (as Duke University theologian Stanley Hauerwas is fond of putting it) resident alien. Perhaps. Even more, it might be clarifying for the soulless Leviathan of the ever-expanding modern regulatory and administrative state that would reveal itself for the secularizing monster it really is. Perhaps.
But pardon me for continuing to harbor the hope that genuine religious pluralism that flourishes in a healthy civil society is good not only for the churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, schools, colleges, universities, and charities that inhabit it, but also for the country that plays host to them.
That is what is threatened by the Obama Administration’s narrow and crabbed vision of, if not actual disrespect for, religious liberty. We face the prospect of a secular (which is not the same as neutral) state whose reach into our lives and communities is constantly expanding, not as a partner with distinctive and diverse local institutions and organizations, but as their master, dictating the terms on which they will serve the needs of those who use and depend upon them. The genuinely distinctive—religiously and morally traditional—institutions will be treated, not as partners, but as adversaries, at best pushed to the margins, at worst run out of business.
I hope and expect all institutions will love and serve all of God’s children, but will defend their right to do so in ways that are faithful to their understanding of Scripture.