Will religious liberty survive in Massachusetts?

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2015/12/18/will-religious-liberty-survive-in-massachusetts/

This has been a bad week for people of faith in Massachusetts. On Wednesday, Norfolk County Superior Court Judge Douglas Wilkins ruled that Fontbonne Academy, a Catholic all-girls school in Milton, cannot refuse to hire a man who is married to another man, despite the fact that Catholic teaching defines marriage as between a man and a woman. Ironically, this is exactly the scenario that the religious exemption amendment to the 1989 bill adding sexual orientation to our state employment non-discrimination laws was designed to prevent.

As Judge Wilkins pointed out, however, this was a case of “first impression,” meaning that the law had yet to be tested in court on this issue. Pinning his reasoning on the state’s definition of employer, rather than the religious safe harbor provision that should apply, Judge Wilkins confined religious protection to schools that “limit membership, enrollment, admission or participation” to members of the specific faith of the school.

But this is a dubious interpretation of the law at best and results in essentially eliminating protections for the vast majority of religious schools. Most faith-based schools, Catholic or otherwise, open their doors to students of other faiths or no faith at all. Fontbonne is no exception. Ironically, it is precisely this openness to diversity which the court said negates the school’s right to define school culture and control its faith-based mission.

This is, frankly, preposterous. Apparently, religious schools in Massachusetts that wish to operate according to the tenets of their faith must now enforce an insular and exclusive membership of believers or else face crippling law suits for daring to maintain a religious identity. But Catholic schools, like most religious schools, have never been about exclusivity. Indeed, the very purpose of religious education is to inculcate the values and traditions of the faith in believers and non-believers alike.

According to Judge Wilkins, another reason that Fontbonne did not qualify for the exemption is that it “encourages debate, including on issues of same-sex marriage, and does not prohibit students from exploring and even advocating ideas and positions contrary to church teachings.” Thus, according to Wilkins, religious schools that wish to qualify for the statute’s explicit religious exemption must not only close themselves to non-believers, they must also actively squelch academic inquiry and prohibit diversity of thought.

It is hard to believe that the authors of the Massachusetts statute envisioned this result. Could our state legislature have possibly intended to require religious schools to wall themselves off from the world and suspend all intellectual debate in order to qualify as “religious” for purposes of the exemption? Unlikely. And, yet, that is exactly what Judge Wilkins’ decision demands.

Unfortunately, the court’s ruling in the Fontbonne case was not the only blow to religious liberty in Massachusetts this week. Yesterday, the Board of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center permanently terminated the medical privileges of Dr. Paul Church, a Harvard Medical School professor and urologist, who (consistent with his faith) spoke out against sex between men as medically unsafe and called on the hospital to stop promoting the gay lifestyle.

For more than half his life, Dr. Church has treated patients and conducted research on prostate and bladder cancer. But the hospital maintains that Church, who faithfully served the hospital for over thirty-five years, is guilty of “harassment” and making statements that were “discriminatory” and “offensive.” In this case, the offensive language Church is accused of using is simply medical fact, easily viewable on the website of the Center for Disease Control, and the expression of his personal faith.

BIDMC’s efforts to silence Church demonstrate a lack of respect for his moral and religious convictions and his right to have those convictions inform his practice.

Yet, those same convictions have also driven Church to participate in medical missions throughout his career. He often volunteers his time giving essential healthcare to the poor in Mexico. Most recently, he travelled to Liberia, the African country at the center of last year’s deadly Ebola virus outbreak. Tragically, the hospital has allowed its stated mission of providing “extraordinary care, where the patient comes first” to be impeded by the dictates of sexual identity politics.

The difference between the Fontbonne case and the Church case is that BIDMC is not a religious organization and, therefore, may not discriminate on the basis of religion or religious expression. What these two instances have in common, however, is that they both serve as harbingers of what is to come for people of faith in Massachusetts when their sincerely held beliefs conflict with the sentiments of the majority.

Massachusetts Family Institute, the local Massachusetts affiliate of Focus on the Family, has been warning about this loss of religious freedom since before the Goodridge decision. Despite regularly being told that our arguments about this slippery slope were hysterical tactics in fear-mongering, the events of this week show our concerns to have been legitimate. We take no joy in being proven right. We are now witnessing the fulfillment of what commentator Rod Dreher has called the “Law of Merited Impossibility: It won’t happen, and when it does, you bigots will deserve it.”

Andrew Beckwith is President of the Massachusetts Family Institute.