The UK Equality Bill & Benedict

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.

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William Lindsey
8 years 11 months ago
"At the practical level, I think these things work themselves out."
I agree.  But how they work themselves out may not be desirable at all, from the standpoint of core Catholic values.  And sometimes legal restrictions may be necessary to assure that those values - like respecting the human rights of everyone regardless of sexual orientation - prevail.
Just yesterday, I met a neighbor whose same-sex partner of 25 years is in a hospital in our city.  The hospital is Catholic, though the religious community that founded it no longer own it (they do have a controling interest in how it's run, however).
He told me that for a week now, he has been unable to obtain medical information about his partner's condition, and his visiting rights have been restricted, because he is not family.  No family members are providing care in this case.  Only the partner.  He is now trying to obtain a power of attorney to assist him as he asks for medical reports.
My life partner had an operation in the same hospital several years ago.  When I spent the night in the room to assist him the evening after the surgery (the hospital does not restrict that right), a nurse who did not like this - because we are a same-sex couple - expressed her displeasure by taking a bag of i.v. painkiller directly from the refrigerator and squeezing it quickly into his veins, as he complained of pain.  He says this was one of the most painful experiences of his life.
Again, things do work themselves out.  And sometimes they do so in ways we may not desire, as ethical people.  As Augustine taught, the state exists to restrain the effects of original sin in people's lives and social arrangements. 
When prejudice is deeply ingrained in people's thinking and behavior, it often takes strong legal constraints to prevent that prejudice from harming those to whom it's directed - as our whole nation learned during the Civil Rights struggle, when we white Southerners had to be forced by law and court orders to do what was ethical.
david power
8 years 11 months ago
I now have the hang of it.It is quite simple.When Mr Winters does not mention the D word or the R word or even the O word his writing ability is unleashed from the ideological mire. Result?Great and informed writing.Balanced and down to earth and above all a pleasure to read. As one commentator said all of the neurons are firing.  
Bill Collier
8 years 11 months ago
This is a complex issue, and I also think MSW's commentary is well done.

I also hope that Mr. Lindsey and/or his partner complained about the malpractice of the nurse (and I don't care if he/she is Catholic or not) for squeezing cold I.V. fluid into a patient's circulatory system. There was nothing medically acceptable (or Christian) about that.
William Lindsey
8 years 11 months ago
Thanks for responding to my posting, Bill Collier.
Yes, we did file a complaint - but only after the fact, given the possibility that filing a complaint at the time would perhaps have resulted in more retaliation on the nurse's part (against which it is sometimes to protect oneself, when there are not strong legal restrictions vs. such behavior by medical professionals).
Her treatment of my partner was already a response both to my choice to remain with him in the room during the night after his surgery, and a call he made to the personnel office of the hospital when she refused him painkillers initially.  The doctor's order was that he be given painkillers at his request in the first two days following surgery, so that the pain not be allowed to get out of control.
He is not a person who ever takes medicine freely, and he is stoical, so when he asked for painkillers the evening after the surgery, it was evident (to me) that his pain was spiking.  The nurse (who had by this point demonstrated her hostility to my presence) refused to give them despite the doctor's order.  This caused my partner in desperation to call the personnel office and report her refusal.  Which resulted in some action by that office instructing her to provide the painkillers - and then the retaliation with the i.v.
The doctor could not have been nicer or more helpful, and the same was true with almost all other caregivers in the hospital.  The nurse indicated that she had religious reservations about gay people and gay couples. 
I do not tell this story to suggest that such events are more common or predictable in a faith-based hospital than a secular one.  I doubt, in fact, that this is the case.
My point is that, without strong legal restrictions embedded in the professional codes of an institution like a hospital, people are sometimes relatively free to express their disdain for unprotected minorities in ways that harm those minorities.  And when faith communities resist those legal restrictions in their institutions, they not uncommonly give a signal to those who choose to enact their prejudices that their choice has a religious justification.
It may be that "things work themselves out" differently in these respects in different parts of the country.  What would be considered barbaric, perhaps, in a faith-based hospital in a tolerant and educated part of the U.S. might be considered less barbaric in a faith-based hospital in a less tolerant and less educated part of the U.S.
Much depends, as well, on whether one has social entree.  I gather from MSW's story that he and his family are well-known to the staff of the institution that cares for his family members.  Many of us approach hospitals without any such social entree.  And when we are minorities without protection, that lack of entree can result in some horrific experiences.  The primary protection those without entree who belong to stigmatized minority groups often have as they deal with institutions is the legal system - codes that prevent discriminatory behavior and try to punish it when it occurs.
I have to wonder why such stories - and they are legion - seem so little to inform public Catholic discussions and thinking about these issues.  If often seems there is relatively little interest in ascertaining what LGBT people actually cope with, when we come into contact with some faith-based institutions.  And it often seems that when we try to talk about this, we're perceived to be engaged in special pleading that invalidates our testimony. 
Which makes many of us simply choose to walk away from the churches.
8 years 11 months ago
MSW wrote ... "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."
From what I have read of the law, this is untrue.  It is already against the law for religious institutions to discriminate in non-religious jobs, and this amendment just seeks to clarify this.  You can read more about the law at MYTH-BUSTING: the Equality Bill and Religion ....
I think it's very unfair for a religious institution, here or in the UK, to take the government's money, money that comes from taxes, taxes paid by gays and lesbians among others, to discriminate against those tax payers.    What you are championing is  bigotry in the name of a religious freedom that is really a ghetto-ization of culture ... try listening to what you have written and substituting a reacial minority for homosexuality.


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