President Barack Obama announced July 21 a new rule protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees of corporations that receive federal contracts from discrimination and extending protection for federal employees from discrimination based on gender identity. We applaud that decision.
A statement from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called the new rule "unprecedented and extreme" and urged that it "should be opposed." The statement is ill-thought-out and hyperbolic. Sentences like "With the stroke of a pen, it lends the economic power of the federal government to a deeply flawed understanding of human sexuality, to which faithful Catholics and many other people of faith will not assent" show a willful misunderstanding of the contemporary discussion around human sexuality. The statement will not advance the bishops' cause beyond a small band of true believers intent on finding another front for the culture wars.
More distressing, however, is the failure of the nation's bishops to reflect deeply upon their own teaching. The church clearly distinguishes between homosexual persons and homosexual acts or inclinations. We have problems with that distinction on other grounds, but think it bears on the issue at hand.
A religiously affiliated organization does not hire an inclination or an act, it hires a person, and the church has affirmed, repeatedly, that the homosexual person is to be loved and is not to be unjustly discriminated against. On what basis, then, should we decline to abide by a government regulation that we not discriminate against LGBT people in hiring? This is not just about legal or political strategy, but about being true to what the church actually teaches, instead of joining the latest culture war battle.
Obama did not expand a religious exemption, but he left in place a 2002 executive order that allows religious groups with federal contracts some leeway to use religious beliefs as a criterion in hiring and firing. Catholic institutions can live with this compromise. A Catholic ministry should be able to employ people who advance the religious identity of that ministry, and no group should be forced to hire someone whose presence is a counter-witness. But we all know far too many wonderful gay and lesbian Catholics who are already engaged in ministry to believe there is any threat, per se, from this new nondiscrimination rule.
At risk, rather, is the church's reputation by continuing to look like the infantry in the culture wars. Surely, the words and gestures of Pope Francis suggest a different, less litigious approach to the culture than that advocated by the U.S. bishops' conference. We hope the culture wars will end, but if not, and in this battle, NCR is happy to stand with its LGBT brothers and sisters.