Friday, December 18, 2015

Judicial Ruling in Massachusetts: Catholic Schools Cannot Claim That Religious Belief Sets Them Above Laws Prohibiting Anti-LGBT Discrimination

And so yesterday as I was blogging about the choice of a Catholic school on the far-right fringes of U.S. political life and of the Catholic academy to obtain permission to discriminate against a minority group while receiving federal funds, what news should break but this news? As Bob Shine notes at Bondings 2.0, in Massachusetts, Judge Douglas H. Wilkins handed down a ruling (pdf file) that a Catholic school in that state, Fontbonne Academy, violated state non-discrimination laws when it rescinded a contract offered to Matthew Barrett after learning that Barrett was gay and married — to Ed Suplee.

Fontbonnne sought to argue that it rescinded its contract not due to Barrett's sexual orientation but to his marriage. Judge Wilkins found that distinction specious, noting that Barrett "suffered gender discrimination when he was denied employment for marrying a person whom a female could have married without suffering the same consequences." Wilkins's ruling also casts a cold eye on the claim of Fontbonne that its Catholic faith required it to rescind its contract because employees of Fontbonne have to represent Catholic faith and values in the work they do.

As Wilkins points out, Barrett was being hired to direct the school's food service.

It will be interesting to see what precedents this ruling sets. It was handed down in one of the few states in the country that has really strong and effective anti-discrimination laws protecting LGBT people. Most states lack such laws, and it's perfectly legal in most states to fire employees because they are gay.

Still, as someone who grew up in the household of a barrister, I do know that precedents are precedents, and this ruling will definitely have effects: it will scare the bejeezus out of places like Belmont Abbey College, about which I wrote yesterday, and will make them more determined that ever to ratchet up the discrimination covered by bogus religious-freedom language.

Here's Bob Shine's conclusion:

This decision means justice for Matthew Barrett. It sets a legal precedent that Massachusetts religious institutions cannot wantonly discriminate against LGBT employees by using religious exemption definitions broadly. What it does not rectify are the thirteen public incidents in 2015 where LGBT and Ally church workers lost their jobs nor the more than 60 which have occurred since 2008.  Because this was a state court decision, and it may not be applicable to similar situations in other states. 
Fontbonne Academy is in the Archdiocese of Boston, which is headed by Cardinal Sean O’Malley. He is a close adviser to Pope Francis and the only American prelate to speak out against the firing of LGBT church workers, telling Bondings 2.0 that it is a situation "needs to be rectified" in 2014. O’Malley should use the occasion of this ruling to implement LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination policies at all archdiocesan schools, parishes, and agencies. Policies could be modeled on those approved by Germany's bishops earlier this year, or the policy adopted by St. Mary's Academy in Portland, Oregon. Such a move would help make real the cardinal’s desire to ending these firings and be a model for others in the U.S. Church to follow.

Interesting, isn't it? Just as I'm typing up a story to post here about a right-wing Catholic college that has for years now targeted LGBT members of its campus community, and which has just gotten permission to continue taking federal funds while discriminating against transgender members of its community in the name of Catholic values, this story about a judicial ruling breaks in Massachusetts. A judge there issues a ruling that a Catholic school cannot play the "we-Catholics-believe" card as it asks for the right to ignore non-discrimination laws.

The problem with being very optimistic about the precedent set by this ruling in Massachusetts is that places like Belmont Abbey College know full well that they can discriminate against LGBT people in the cultural setting in which they carry out their mission, and that they will be strongly supported by many people in their local community. Though a word I often heard on the lips of the monastic leaders when I was working for this college was "countercultural" — "We have to exhibit values that contrast with the values of the mainstream culture; we defend God's heterosexual plan for the created world because we're being countercultural" — these are a monastic community and college very deeply enmeshed in the values of their surrounding culture, insofar as those values are misogynistic and homophobic.

So that finding ways for judicial precedents in places like Massachusetts, where discrimination against LGBT citizens is not permitted by law, to make a dent in places like North Carolina, where such discrimination is freely permitted and laws against it are resisted, is no easy matter. Not until the federal government enacts such laws and makes them stick.

And that's precisely what schools like Belmont Abbey College, Steubenville University, St. Gregory's University, and the big slate of Southern Baptist colleges and universities that have also gotten "right-to-discriminate" permits from the federal government in the past year, and the right-wing think tanks supporting their defiance of Title IX non-discrimination regulations, intend to prevent from happening.

(And, yes, within just a few hours after I made my posting about Belmont Abbey College, one of its big right-wing promoters plastered the Internet with an article by the Cardinal Newman Society about how the school is not about discrimination at all. The article quotes the abbot of Belmont Abbey monastery, Placid Solari, who says that respecting and welcoming everyone is a core value of the school as a Catholic school.

But that's not what the letter of Belmont Abbey's President Thierfelder to the Title IX folks requesting a "right-to-discriminate" Title IX waiver says, is it?)

The photo of segregated drinking fountains in Mobile, Alabama, in 1956 is by Gordon Parks, and is featured in an article by Jordan G. Teicher at Slate yesterday celebrating his work (with thanks to the Gordon Parks Foundation and Salon 94, New York).

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