The current issue of The Tablet has an interesting article by Elena Curti about Pope Benedict’s recent remarks to the Bishops of the United Kingdom regarding a proposed Equality Law. The proposed law, which is making its way through parliament, would, among other things, remove the exemption religious organizations enjoy from the law’s non-discrimination provisions. A similar debate is afoot here in the States regarding the funding of faith-based organizations by the federal government.
In the UK debate as in the American, there are misplaced concerns about the separation of church and state. This is funny for an American to read about in the UK which, after all, has an established Church. And, in Britain as in the US, there is the bizarre phenomenon among liberals that Curti points out: "But the Pope’s supporters make a point of highlighting the ‘illiberalism’ of those who maintain he is not entitled to express a view." U.S. liberals exhibited a similar overheated illiberalism when they denounced the U.S. bishops for lobbying on health care, as if the assumption of a religious office demanded that one forfeit his or her constitutional rights to free speech and petition.
The heart of the matter with these Equality measures, however, is hiring and non-discrimination, especially regarding gays and lesbians. "We never insisted on non-discrimination legislation applying to religious jobs, such as being a vicar, a bishop, an imam, or a rabbi," British Minister for Women and Equality Harriet Harman told The Tablet. "However, when it comes to non-religious jobs, those organizations must comply with the law." By non-religious jobs, Harman evidently means drug counselors, or cleaners, or those who handle the religious organization’s finances.
Ms. Harman, alas, has never been to St. Joseph’s Living Center in Windham, Connecticut. My mother spent the last six months of her life in the care of the good people who run that facility. I do not know if all of them were Catholic. I do not know if any of them were gay. I suspect those in authority would not think to ask someone about their sexual preference if they came to apply for a job, and that someone coming to apply for a job at St. Joseph’s would recognize the distinctly Catholic culture of the place just by walking in the door and seeing the chapel straight ahead, flanked by pictures of Pope Benedict and Bishop Michael Cote. Or the crucifixes in every room. Or the lack of meat on Fridays during Lent. When you have nine aunts and uncles, you spend a lot of time in nursing homes and at St. Joseph’s, the Catholicism of the place is palpable. There is not really any such thing as a "non-religious" job at an institution that is so decidedly Catholic.
I cannot imagine how anyone who was hostile to the Church would want to work in a Catholic culture. Nor do I think that culture would fall apart overnight if one of the nurse’s aides were gay or one of the doctors were a lesbian. But, I do know that St. Joseph’s Living Center has as much right to be a distinctively Catholic culture as anyone else has to a job there. I know that a Catholic culture only exists where there are Catholics, so that some kind of preferential hiring for practicing Catholics may be required to maintain the Catholic identity of the institution. And, I know that when my time comes, if I am not able to spend my last days in my own home, I want to be at St. Joseph’s too.
There are limits, perhaps not legal limits but moral ones, to what religious identity permits and requires. A therapist needs to be a good listener, and it is foolish to hire a bad Catholic therapist over a good Protestant one. The religious affiliation of applicants should be considered the same way colleges and universities consider race in accepting applicants: It is one factor among many, not a decisive one, but not a negligible one either. What is clear is that the State must have a compelling interest to intrude into the internal decision-making of religious organizations. The protection of children is one such compelling interest. Anti-discrimination is a tougher call. At the practical level, I think these things work themselves out. But, at the legal level, the Church has a right to be herself and there is nothing liberal about trying to deny her that right.