Our nation’s simmering conscience wars have claimed another victim: the Catholic Diocese of Rockford, Ill. Once again, the conflict centered on the legal redefinition of marriage and family. But at a deeper level, what’s at stake is the future of moral and religious liberty.
Previous clashes have yielded similar results. In 2006, for example, Catholic Charities in Massachusetts halted adoption and foster care services after the state Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. The court’s decision, combined with previously enacted sexual orientation nondiscrimination laws, effectively denied a state license to any adoption or foster agency that “discriminated” by having a policy of placing children only with opposite-sex married couples.
For the Catholic Church generally, placements with traditional married couples represent a settled view of both the nature of the family and what constitutes the best interest of the child. Both concepts run athwart the recent, and aggressively trendy, assertions that traditional marriage is a bigoted social construct and children do not need both a mother and father.
While the developments in Massachusetts were widely noted by First Amendment scholars, the news that a century-old charity was shutting its doors on conscience grounds caused barely a ripple in the popular media. Neither did the conflict that arose in the District of Columbia last year after the city council enacted a bill permitting same-sex marriages in the nation’s capital.
Having seen what happened in Massachusetts, the Archdiocese of Washington lobbied the D.C. council seeking a robust religious exemption that would allow it both to continue its adoption and foster care services as well as maintain city contracts to serve the homeless and train the jobless. The city council sharply rebuffed these efforts. As a result, the archdiocese was compelled to abandon its adoption work and forgo providing marriage benefits to its future employees engaged in other social service work.
Now this trend has spread to the Midwest. The news from Illinois points up the fact that even civil unions legislation can threaten religious conscience, particularly if legislators refuse, as they did in Springfield, to approve meaningful conscience exemptions.
Examples of entities giving up their public contracts are relatively rare. Having the courage of one’s convictions is an admirable trait. But not everyone is pleased with the decision of the Catholic dioceses to navigate by their moral lights. The liberal Center for American Progress was particularly mean-spirited and divisive in its analysis, blogging that the diocese had made a “blatant choice to prefer discrimination and stigmatization of gays and lesbians” over charity.
Harsh words like these hardly leave room for compromise and accommodation. Laws that impose unacceptable terms on religious social service agencies approach these issues with a worrisome lack of humility. Religious providers are not seeking a “piece of the pie” from government bureaus that invented charity. The reverse is more often true. Religious groups’ ministries of service predate, and indeed often inspired, government action. Now, however, government threatens to extinguish their historic missions by denying them funds and even licenses to operate.
The role of churches and church ministries in serving unwed mothers, opening orphanages, assisting the mentally ill, and operating hospitals in the United States dates to the 18th century.
The argument that laws like those of Massachusetts and Illinois are really about non-discrimination and tolerance rings hollow. In both jurisdictions, Catholic Charities was willing to refer unmarried couples, including homosexuals, to other agencies that had no moral objection to placements outside the traditional family.
“Diversity” in such matters implies a variety of agencies and policies, not state-imposed uniformity.
Charles A. Donovan is senior research fellow in the DeVos Center on Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.
First moved on the McClatchy News Wire service