Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Arkansas Catholic Schools and Discrimination Against Gay Students: But These Schools Are Private After All, Aren't They?

As the Catholic diocese of Little Rock implements a cruel new policy for Catholic schools throughout Arkansas that makes gay* students invisible (see here, here, and here), an argument I'm hearing bruited about locally is that, well, these are private schools after all. They can and should be allowed to do whatever they want.

They're Catholic schools, after all. They should be allowed to do whatever the Catholic church wants them to do (but never mind that a sizable majority of lay Catholics in the U.S. oppose discrimination against gay* people and support same-sex marriage).

I wonder if the people making these arguments have ever heard of the 1983 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case Bob Jones University vs. United States. In that case, Bob Jones, a church-affiliated university, claimed it had the right to continue receiving federal funds even though it had chosen to engage in racial discrimination while citing its religious beliefs as a warrant for such discrimination. The Supremes slapped that argument down, ruling that claiming religious belief as a ground for legally forbidden racial discrimination and expecting to receive federal funding while violating federal non-discrimination regulations don't cut it.

If you want to discriminate and claim that your religious beliefs instruct you to do so, fine and dandy. But don't expect to receive federal support to subvent your religion-based discrimination.

As far as I am aware, though Catholic schools are private church-based schools, they still receive public funding in various forms. They're expected to adhere to state-mandated criteria for teacher training, curriculum, etc. They do not exist in the kind of do-it-yourself vacuum envisaged by the argument that private schools are completely private and should therefore be allowed to go their own way, to do whatever they choose to do qua private schools.

What arguments like this are really vocalizing is the unexamined presupposition that religiously based discrimination against gay* people is justified in a way that racial discrimination should not be justified. People advancing such arguments seldom want to propose that we revisit Bob Jones University vs. United States and allow church-based schools to start claiming religious warrants for racial discrimination.

But discrimination against gay* folks is, they suggest, a special case. It has real justification in religious beliefs in a way that racial discrimination does not have.

Never mind that Bob Jones University quite explicitly appealed to sincerely held religious belief as it sought to engage in racial discrimination while receiving federal dollars. Never mind that the university pointed to centuries of Christian teaching upholding white supremacy and justifying racism and racial segregation, as it sought to engage in racial discrimination. 

Somehow, none of this counts for people supporting the "right" of religious groups and their institutions to discriminate against gay* folks today. It does not count that only a few decades in the past, religious groups were making the very same kinds of claims in support of their "right" to engage in racial discrimination, and those claims were ruled out of bounds by the Supreme Court. 

Never mind that religious groups have been wildly wrong in the past, as they have railed against the civil rights of people of color and women. In some magical way, none of this is supposed to count — so the argument goes — as they do the very same thing today vis-a-vis gay* people.

Because, we're expected to believe, they're suddenly right about opposing the rights of gay* folks . . . . In a way they were clearly not right as they kicked and screamed about rights for people of color and women . . . . 

Go figure.


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