2015 was an historic year for religious liberty. From Obergefell to Kim Davis, it was a year full of controversy. As 2015 ends and 2016 begins, a new frontier has emerged concerning the debate over religious liberty: Religious institutions.
In December, eight Democratic senators wrote a letter to the Department of Education asking that it implement scrutinizing protocols to increase transparency for any religious school that receives a Title IX exemption based on religious grounds. That same day, the influential Human Rights Campaign released a massive report that echoed the senators’ concerns. Why the concern now? Because these schools hold convictions that conflict with liberal views on matters of sexual ethics. The actions made here are symbolic and show just how vilified religious liberty and religious identity have become.
In the eyes of these senators and the Human Rights Campaign, it is discriminatory for a religiously-affiliated college or university, which receives any federal dollars, to take religious values into consideration concerning admission. Notwithstanding the fact that these values are essential to the character and integrity of the institution. It’s an action they believe runs afoul of the 1972 Educational Amendments, specifically Title IX, that bans any form of discrimination based on sex when federal funds are exchanged.
Anticipating a day where Congress could seek to equate sexual orientation and gender identity as a protected class like sex or race, these colleges have acted to secure exemptions. To the frustration of liberal lawmakers and activists, thankfully, many schools have been able to obtain these exemptions. And for good reason: Reading sexual orientation and gender identity into Title IX, as some lawmakers would like to do, creates unnecessary conflict and violates religious freedom. The practice of offering exemptions based on religious conviction shouldn’t be revoked just because LGBT activists think they can hold a college’s legality hostage.
Like any private association animated by religious, moral, or political convictions, it is essential that individuals and groups of people be free to live by their convictions—whether Christian, Muslim, Jew, or skeptic. While no right is absolute, the freedoms enshrined by the First Amendment guarantee that religious and nonreligious citizens be given the maximal amount of freedom to live truthfully to their convictions. In the rich tradition of Christian theology, the idea that men and women are complementary sexes uniquely fitted for marriage is paramount. This teaching is central to the Christian understanding in such things as anthropology and family life; and is why Christian colleges, in order to be distinctly Christian, require their students to follow Christian teaching on matters of sexual morality. It is utterly reasonable, whether by observation of our biology or gleaned through the teachings of religious texts, to acknowledge the reason that Christians believe male and female design is necessary for flourishing. It is worth noting that these beliefs on marriage and family are shared by billions of other persons within the Abrahamic faith tradition. You might disagree with a Christian understanding of sex and marriage, but it is unreasonable to deny its longstanding importance to America.
Because laws are blunt instruments that may unwittingly impose upon a faith tradition’s convictions, the government allows faith groups to seek exemptions when a law is in conflict with their sincerely held religious beliefs. This is the best of the American tradition—taking every measure of accommodation to protect the free flourishing of religion.
That brings us to today. As American culture has grown more accepting of homosexuality, cultural opinion is now on a collision course with religiously-affiliated educational institutions that desire to maintain their beliefs about the purpose of sexuality. In response, dozens of schools have preemptively acted to ensure they can maintain their admissions requirements without violating federal law by seeking exemptions.
Exemptions represent a balancing test between the rights of individuals to live freely and the government’s obligation to treat citizens fairly. Such exemptions aren’t a “license to discriminate” as those opposed to religious liberty glibly caricature.
This is what eight senators and the Human Rights Campaign consider unacceptable and discriminatory. They now desire that schools that receive such exemptions be given a Scarlet Letter—a “B,” for bigotry—all because these colleges and universities wish to remain true to two thousand years of moral teaching. A tradition that our legal system once, too, viewed as telling the truth about marriage.
The motivation behind these actions very clear. Lawmakers and the Human Rights Campaign want to single out, intrude upon, harass, and intimidate communities and institutions that live by these convictions. When did it become acceptable to label long-standing religious values about marriage, values shared by millions, as a catalyst for discrimination? While stopping short of asking for a full repeal of these exemptions, lawmakers and the Human Rights Campaign presently want an extra layer of scrutiny applied to these institutions. But there’s no assurance that these exemptions will be permanent, especially if such opponents of religious freedom were to have the final word. What we do have assurance of, is that some opponents of religious freedom very much desire to turn those with traditional or religious beliefs about marriage into second class citizens. That is unreasonable and unacceptable.
This need not be; and citizens of goodwill should oppose any measure that makes any person or any group with a traditional view about marriage the recipient of government harassment.
The brazen action against these colleges is particularly troubling because it undermines our shared heritage of valuing and welcoming those with different opinions that are held for sincere reasons. It’s also quite ironic. When citizens or groups supported same-sex marriage before it was legal, no legal attempts were made to target, punish, or withdraw the tax status of organizations in support of redefining marriage. Religious citizens opposed to secular forms of morality espoused at secular universities are not in the business of asking the federal government to withdraw federal funding because of disagreements about morality. Why, then, do this to religious colleges? Freedom, pluralism, and respect are two-way streets that require goodwill by all citizens, not coercive regimes that strip religious citizens of their rights. If students wish not to attend a university with religious expectations, students are free to register their opinion by enrolling elsewhere. But when lawmakers and activists make reasonable religious claims the object of scorn, they harm the common good by making religious motive inherently suspect.
It betrays our national character to penalize citizens or institutions for religious convictions that they believe, with good reason, advance the cause of human flourishing.