Does Religious Liberty Protect the Right To Discriminate?

Though I’m on the fly I wanted to take a few moments to comment on this story from yesterday’s NYTimes.   Here’s the heart of the matter:  Various agencies in Illinois (and many other states) place children with foster and adoptive parents.  They receive state money for this service.   In order to get state money, the recipient must comply with state anti-discrimination provisions.   One thing this means is that the recipient of state funds must agree to consider lesbian and gay couples as applicants.   It cannot ban them as a group simply because they are lesbian/gay.

Historically, one recipient of state funds for these sorts of placements–and an important one–is Catholic Charities.   Catholic Charities will not consider lesbian and gay couples–they are uniformly barred.   The bar arises from church teachings that lesbian and gay relationships are necessarily bad.   The catagorical bar conflicts with Illinois law, and rather than consider lesbian and gay couples, Catholic Charities has chosen to shut its offices. 

Of course it is free to shut its offices.  This isn’t really the point of dispute.   Catholic Charities would like to continue to receive state funds and continue to discriminate.  It invokes religious freedom–since the discrimination arises from a religious principle.

There’s no doubt that the Catholic Church can refuse to sanction lesbian and gay relationships, just as it can refuse to ordain women as priests.  Both acts are discriminatory, both acts are grounded in church teachings, and both acts are protected exercises of religious freedom.

But religious freedom does not entitle an agency to receive state funds and at the same time retain policies at odds with state law.   Agencies must choose whether to stand on their religious principles or take money from the state.

Frankly I think this is a shame that Catholic Charities has made the choice it did.   I’ve no doubt that it has done important work placing kids in foster or adoptive homes.   I wish it would agree to continue to do so and to abide by the state anti-discrimination provisions.   But if they wish to invoke their freedom to discriminate, they can certainly do that by renouncing any state money.

The thing is, the Catholic bishops have invoked religious freedom to assert that they should recieve state funding even as they discriminate in violation of state law.   This just doesn’t make sense to me.

Suppose there was a religion that considered racial supremacy one of its fundamental tenets.   The religion would be free to teach its tenets.   It could organize church hierarchy consistent with that principle.   But would anyone think it had a right to accept state funding and then dispense the funding in ways that were overtly racially discriminatory?   I rather doubt it.

5 responses to “Does Religious Liberty Protect the Right To Discriminate?

  1. Catholic Charities has made millions off adoption. All you need to do is look at each guidestar report. It is nothing new either, it goes back over a hundred years, and it really is quite sickening.

    As to the work they were doing placing foster children – there are other agencies already doing the very same work and making the profit instead. Foster children are still being placed and cases being transferred and maintained.

    If they truly were in it for the children then they would use church funds and not accept federal funds.

    There must be separation between church and state or the system collapses.

    I was raised that you made choices on your behalf based on your religious views – you did not expect others to make exceptions or change their ways to accomodate you. Free will and all.

    • It’s interesting for me to see your critique of Catholic Charities. Perhaps I have given them too much of a pass on this–just assuming that it was good work that they did. As for the rest of what you say–separation of church and all that–I totally agree.

  2. I think private adoption agencies should be able to have whatever restrictions they like, but they should not receive state funds and should have to operate off their own money.

    • I agree that this is the line that ought to be drawn and it is the line that generally does operate. But I suspect that most of the money in adoption/foster care placement is state money.

  3. Julie,

    I am sure Catholic Charities has done good work but they have always depended on government funds – go back in time to the Orphan Trains and Charles Brice and you will see the start of the war between the Catholics and Protestants when it came to caring for the poor.

    Protestants thought families out west were better than institutions – Catholics disagreed because they felt a Catholic needed to be raised in a Catholic home and that meant institutions (not enough homes) which convienently the state paid a per-child fee as a ward of the state. More children than orphans were housed in those institutions and more children than were in need prior to the institutions being built (more children/same institution/more funds). Catholic Charities tried several things including the orphan trains but settled on the institutions.

    When the Baby Scoop Era (post WWII) happened many mothers were then sent to their maternity homes and babies adopted out – good price tags and I don’t know if they also received payment from the mothers family for care but that was a common practice. Protestant homes as well were just as bad. Things done to mothers were not nice. The price is still being paid today. Other countries such as Australia are looking into the practices and apologies given – the US – not so much. The practices are considered inhumane today.

    The record keeping was abysmal to the point in this story they could only narrow down to six different infants who could have been from the family in question.,0,1793711.story?page=1

    This article from 1994 gives a glimpse into practices from back then as well.

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