A Catholic Bishop compared requiring all couples to be treated with equal dignity to “the cruelty and torture of the Roman Empire” last week. His statement was a response to a Catholic health system’s announcement that they may extend benefits to the legally married spouses of their lesbian, gay, and bisexual employees.
Mercy Health is a large Catholic health care system with over 40,000 employees in seven states. They recently announced that “in line with recent changes in government regulations, we will extend benefits to all legally married spouses effective this spring.” (Though, in another statement, they added that they are still “exploring how best to expand health care benefits for our co-workers.”)
This indication that Mercy intended to extend equal rights to their gay employees prompted Bishop James V. Johnston, the Catholic bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Missouri, to raise the specter of Roman torture. “No believing Christian worthy of the name should violate God’s law because of ‘regulations,'” Bishop Johnson said in a statement. “Our ancestors refused to abandon the faith even when subjected to the cruelty and torture of the Roman Empire, but in our age unspecified ‘regulations,’ government funds, and fear of public ridicule is sufficient in order to secure the compliance of some.”
Bishop Johnston’s views were echoed — albeit with less overwrought language — in a statement by the Archdiocese of St. Louis. They told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that “[i]t is simply inconsistent to claim to be a Catholic institution while publicly acting against Church teaching,” the “Church teaching” in this case apparently being the notion that gay couples do not enjoy the same rights as straight ones. The Archdiocese claimed that “Catholic institutions face sanctions from the American government for fidelity to their Catholic identity.”
If the entire Catholic health system adopted a similar view, that could have profound implications for much of the greater American health care system. The Catholic Health Association estimates that approximately one in six patients in the United States are treated in a Catholic hospital. That is a massive network of employees that could be denied benefits under Bishop Johnston’s position — although it is worth noting that the Catholic Health Association has historically taken relatively moderate positions (at least as compared to Johnson) on questions such as birth control.
Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, employers that engaged in anti-gay discrimination had a much weaker legal case if they wanted to cite their religious beliefs in order to defy the law. In its 1982 decision in United States v. Lee, the Supreme Court explained that “[w]hen followers of a particular sect enter into commercial activity as a matter of choice, the limits they accept on their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on the statutory schemes which are binding on others in that activity.”
Hobby Lobby, however, permitted an employer with religious objections to some forms of birth control to refuse to comply with federal rules requiring them to offer contraceptive coverage in their employee health plan. Thus, it permitted that employer to “superimpose” its religious belief on a legal regime that is “binding on others” engaged in the same kind of business. Significantly, while Hobby Lobby did indicate that religious objections could not be used to engage in racial discrimination, the opinion was silent on whether gender discrimination or anti-gay discrimination would be permitted if an employer believes that their faith compels them to discriminate. Thus, should an anti-gay employer adopt Bishop Johnson’s position on gay rights, it is not at all clear that the Supreme Court would require that employer to comply with the law.
(HT: New Ways Ministry)