Catholics Fight for Freedom in Washington, D.C.

The Catholic University of America and the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., are the latest targets of legislative and judicial moral relativists who severely threaten the religious freedom of Catholic educational institutions from pre-schools to universities, as well as other Catholic services.

The center of the issue are two bills, both approved unanimously by the D.C. Council in December in a deliberate effort to force Catholics and others with traditional religious beliefs to disregard their own moral standards. One bill would allow D.C. to force Catholic schools and colleges to recognize and possibly support homosexual student clubs, while the second may force Catholic and other employers to include coverage for abortions in their employee health plans. Both bills can still be halted by the D.C. mayor, Congress or the federal courts.

This is another attempt by a legislative body to disregard existing federal law and court rulings to impose its own amorality on faith-based organizations with deeply held religious beliefs. The D.C. Council has sunk to this new depth of moral indifference by repealing legal protection for religious schools that has been on the books for 25 years. It has banned religious schools from enforcing “morality clauses” in teacher contracts with regard to abortion and sexuality. And it has set the stage for mandatory coverage of abortion in employee health plans—even at Catholic schools, services and organizations.

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While the First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993, which clarified constitutional protections for religious activities. Within this context, the D.C. Council still approved the abortion legislation over the objections of outgoing D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and the District’s general counsel, who warned that the Council’s denial of religious freedom raises “serious” constitutional concerns.

The bill approved on December 17 amends the D.C. Human Rights Act to prohibit employers from discriminating against employees because of their “reproductive health” choices with no exemption for religious employers. It means that Catholic agencies could not expect employees to uphold moral teachings against abortion and sterilization, and even Catholic schools could not prevent teachers from publicly celebrating their “reproductive” activities.

Experts say that the law could be applied as in California, which recently has determined that its anti-discrimination laws require all state-approved health insurance plans—even those sponsored by religious employers—to cover elective abortion.

The other bill approved by the D.C. Council on Dec. 2 targets religious schools and colleges by repealing a law approved by Congress in 1989. That year, the District had tried to force Georgetown University to recognize a homosexual student club, and Congress approved the “Armstrong Amendment” to protect the right of religious educators to enforce their own standards for student clubs.

Georgetown no longer objects to such clubs, even when they oppose Catholic teaching, but the Catholic University of America (CUA) is eager to protect its Catholic identity.

“We make a statement about ourselves every time that we extend recognition to a student group, so we only sponsor organizations whose overall principles are consistent with the Church’s teaching,” testified CUA General Counsel Lawrence Morris before the D.C. Council. “In that regard our university regulation regarding student organizations is plainly written: ‘All proposed student organizations must adhere to the goals and mission of Catholic University and the principles of the Roman Catholic Church.’”

He further explained: “Our stand is important to us because we take seriously our role in the development of the souls entrusted to us—again, for all of the activity that occurs both in and outside the classroom.”

But the Council chose to violate the Catholic Church’s religious freedom under the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act—just as it did in 2009, with disastrous consequences. The Council refused to exempt religious employers from mandatory employee benefits for same-sex partners, which forced the Archdiocese of Washington to shut down social services that were very important to the D.C. community. The Archdiocese was the only institution which could provide services in existing facilities throughout the District. At the time, the Archdiocese was serving 68,000 residents in 40 parishes.

In the end, the issue seems to be the blatant disregard to both the Constitution itself and existing federal law—notwithstanding the fundamental moral principles under which this nation was formed. This societal transformation was codified in Casey v Planned Parenthood, 1992: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Today we have a society of moral relativists, with many unfortunately in positions where they can make and interpret laws.

Morris and CUA President John Garvey are prepared to continue the fight, if necessary. Also weighing in against the bills is the D.C. Catholic Conference, which represents the Archdiocese of Washington and its many schools and agencies.

It is likely that their fate will be determined by the courts where, on the surface, it would appear that CUA and other D.C. organizations will be successful based on previous case law. But what if that fails? What if CUA is required to not only permit and recognize but also to fund lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transsexual clubs, regardless of their attacks on Catholic teaching? What if Catholic schools must provide insurance coverage for abortion, and cannot discipline a teacher for celebrating her abortion in the classroom? Where does it stop?

The Catholic Church and its associated institutions are at a crossroad. Does one comply with the law or civilly disobey immoral laws? In 2010, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago commented on Illinois legislation, pronouncing, “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.” Is Cardinal George’s timeline too conservative?

All this is happening in the capital of our nation, under God—the land of the free.


  • Robert E. Laird

    Robert E. Laird is vice president and director of the higher education division of The Cardinal Newman Society, which promotes and defends faithful Catholic education.

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