Discrimination order sparks fears over religious liberty

Wedding Rings. Credit: Petr Kratochvil (CC0 1.0)

Catholic and family advocates are voicing concern over reports of an anti-discrimination executive order that could undermine religious freedom.

A group of U.S. Catholic bishops issued a statement noting “great concern” over “the reported intention of the president of the United States to issue an executive order forbidding what the administration considers 'discrimination' based on ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity.’”

“Because we do not know how the executive order will define these critically important terms, or if it will provide sufficient (or any) religious freedom protection, we cannot provide substantive comment on the order,” the bishops clarified in their June 20 statement.

The document was signed by Archbishops Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, chairman for the bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage; Thomas Wenski of Miami, chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development; William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty; and John Nienstedt of Minneapolis, chairman of the Committee on Doctrine.

The archbishops responded to reports that an executive order is being drafted to ban discrimination by federal contractors against people who identify as gay or transgender.

The news came after the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, stalled in the House of Representatives.

If signed into action, the executive order could require organizations with federal contracts to treat same-sex partnerships as marriages, unless wide religious freedom exemptions are granted.

Currently, ENDA proposes to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and an employee’s stated gender identity by all larger non-religious, civilian employers.

The bill has been introduced in every congressional session since 1994 except for the 109th session from 2005-2007, but has never been passed. President Barack Obama has voiced his support for both the 2011 and 2013 versions of the bill.

Both the legislation and potential executive order have raised religious freedom worries. Catholic groups that contract with the federal government have voiced concern that they may be disqualified from future contracts due to their beliefs about same-sex conduct and relationships.

Catholic institutions such as the U.S. bishops’ conference and the Archdiocese of Washington have already lost government grants or had to drop spousal coverage because of the districts’ recognition of same-sex relationships as marriage or requirements that Catholic social programs include access to abortions.

The Church in the United States is currently in the midst of the third national Fortnight for Freedom to raise awareness about various threats to religious freedom including that posed by ENDA and the potential executive order.

The bishops clarified that they support efforts to “uphold the dignity of each and every human person” and oppose “unjust discrimination any person on any grounds” as well as misguided teaching about marriage and religious freedom.

They also noted that they would review the executive order once available, “in order to assess whether it serves the dignity of the human person and the common good,” and give detailed comments on the topic, as they did with the ENDA legislation in the Senate.

The American Family Association offered similar concerns over religious liberty for Christian business owners and contractors.

The group’s president, Tim Wildmon, charged in a June 17 statement that the proposed order could allow the government “to use ‘faith’ as the basis for discriminating against potential contractors.”


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