July 22 2014
Here we go again: The ink was not dry on the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling before the Obama administration threw down yet another gauntlet to religious organizations in the U.S.
President Obama’s recent executive order banning the federal government or any of its agencies from entering into a contract with any organization that refuses to hire gay or transgender people because of their sexual orientation is going to ignite the next battle for religious liberty.
I am not going to comment here on the rightness or wrongness of President Obama’s executive order but only want to say that his refusal to provide a carve out for religious organizations is an act of belligerence that could have far-reaching ramifications. The president could have issued the order with protections for religious employers.
Since Obama announced that he would take executive action, he's faced pressure from opposing flanks over whether he would include an exemption for religious organizations. He decided to maintain a provision that allows religious groups with federal contracts to hire and fire based upon religious identity, but not give them any exception to consider sexual orientation or gender identity. Churches also are able to hire ministers as they see fit.
Ponder that last sentence again: Churches also are able to hire ministers as they see fit. That is what passes for protecting religious liberty today. But not all employees at religious institutions are ordained ministers. Some are teachers or hold other positions.
What you think about gay and transgender people is not the issue, though I am confident that most readers of this blog would gladly hire competent gay and transgender applicants without government diktat. The issue is whether churches that have teachings against such sexual activity should have the right to their live by teachings or whether some religious organizations should be compelled to hire people—often visible people—who directly contradict what they believe. The absolutist policies of the Obama administration, reflected in this ban, are that many traditional religious organizations across the nation should not—must not—be allowed to exercise the right to religious liberty.
An excellent article over at The Federalist explains how the ban will affect Gordon College, a respected Christian college with a good academic record in the Boston area. Disturbingly, the article points out that the bullying of Gordon is just the beginning. Other religious colleges will soon feel Pharaoh’s yoke, too.
The president of Gordon College joined officials at similar organizations in signing a letter to President Obama that asked for an exemption from the gay-transgender ban for faith based employers. Gordon “does not want to be forced to hire people [who] represent the opposite of what it stands for.”
Gordon is in peril, as is almost every college in the country, because it receives money from the federal government (a topic for another day, but one well worth addressing). Much of this largesse is in the form of student loans. Federal money is, of course, money we all send to the IRS. As The Federalist observes:
This would be only an economic problem, not an individual liberty problem (besides the tax extortion), if the feds ever sent people’s tax dollars back to them with no control measures attached. But they don’t. Control is half the point of getting it in the first place. It’s a fishing expedition, and you’re the catch. Although a few other colleges (such as my alma mater, Hillsdale) realized some time ago that federal money inherently threatens freedom, most are so hooked they would now have to dissolve if they did not accept it. Liberty University, for example, of Virginia and Jerry Falwell fame, regularly makes news for being among the top consumers of federal Pell Grants. It got a cool $81 million from the feds in 2010-11.
So the federal government has a powerful tool to use in making colleges and other religious employers voluntarily surrender a sizable chunk of their religious liberty. The federal government also is heavily involved with various religious charities, including Catholic Charities. (Perhaps it is time for these religious charities to consider raising money without the federal government involved? Just a thought.)
Gordon and other educational institutions face a challenge beyond the federal money, however. The federal government is involved in accreditation, and the withdrawal of this imprimatur could destroy a school. The Federalist concludes:
President Obama is clearly aware of the federal power over accreditation—he’s proposed changes to the accreditation process that involve more intimate data-collection on students, among other things. Since government-regulated accreditation does essentially nothing to improve school quality and is therefore a giant exercise in providing sustenance for the mosquito-like bureaucracy, and now a tool for potential religious discrimination, it’s time to abolish it.
Back to Gordon College, however. It is now excruciatingly clear we live in a time where some people who have political power are on a crusade against people who, in their view, commit moral thoughtcrime. A religious college loses all reason for existence if it must conform to a diametrically opposite moral code. …
That may be the point.
I hope I won’t sound Pollyannaish when I say that this could end well—it may trigger a re-evaluation in faith-based charities and schools of their dependence on federal funds. It might even lead to our thinking, “Golly, we send too much money to Washington. Let’s keep more of it and run this here charity (or college or school) for ourselves.”