Intentional Confusion

After the last week or so, with all the stuff circulating about “religious organizations” rights to exemptions concerning provisions for health care and recruitment/dismissal of people whose sexual orientation does not square with the religious owners of for-profit businesses, I am sitting with a printed-out copy of the grand letter signed by a number of conservative Christians to President Obama. I decided it needed a careful reading, and it is now bleeding with red ink in its margins.

It’s really quite a marvel of religious rhetoric, this letter. It requests, very politely, that an exemption be granted to the 2013 Employment Non-Discrimination Act, prohibiting discrimination by ” private sector employers and local, State, and Federal Government employers” against people on the basis of their sexual orientation. The exemption is requested in compliance with Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which does grant that religious organizations may refuse to hire individuals who do not comply with the teachings by which said religious organizations are bound.

However, it seems that an intentional confusion in this letter is being created, by conflating a religious organization with an organization whose purposes are not primarily religious, but is governed by individuals with sincerely held religious beliefs.

The two are not the same. The EEOC produced an informal discussion letter explaining which organizations are eligible for the exemption. The relevant portion of it indicates that the

exemption applies only to those institutions whose purpose and character are ‘primarily religious’. That determination is to be based on ‘all significant religious and secular characteristics.’

Some of the characteristics include (but are not limited to, do not all carry equal weight, and no single one is completely determinative) such things as the profit/non-profit or charitable nature of the organization, whether the day-to-day operations are primarily religious in purpose, whether it is owned or operated by a formally-constituted religious entity (or has officials of such an entity on its board of trustees), and whether its membership is made up of co-religionists.

It is easy to see how an entity such as Catholic Charities could qualify for an exemption, even if it is providing (for example) adoption or foster care services and advice to secular agencies run by state or local authorities.

However, Catholic Charities does not need to write a letter to the President of the United States to request this exemption. It is already covered under existing legislation.

But this is not the issue.

What is really being asked is that for-profit employers whose owners and operators are conservative religious individuals, might also be covered by this, and still have the capacity to bid on lucrative government contracts. The July 1 letter to the President deliberately uses the language of religious organizations to claim that certain employers be exempt from the “executive order addressing federal contractors and LGBT employment policies.”

There are some very strange claims made in this letter, and picking it apart (as a former college freshman writing instructor, I always delight in such things) reveals a mass of contradictions and deliberate confusions.

First, there is no need for a special “religious exemption.” For truly religious organizations, the exemption exists, as I have mentioned above.

This is rapidly followed by this strong claim:

We believe that all persons are created in the divine image of the creator, and are worthy of respect and love, without exception.

Yet, what is being asked (in addition to the request that the reader believe that construction companies and arms manufacturers might be considered “religious organizations”) is the right to make that exception toward a portion of the work force.

The idol of agreement rears its ugly head here, with the claim that “it may not be possible for all sides to reach a consensus on every issue.” The question whether consensus needs to be reached concerning whether an individual (or corporation, given that the two are often interchangeable under the law) is required to obey a validly-passed law that doesn’t sit well. Even if that law does not hamper the fulfillment of that person’s/corporation’s purposes.

There is a claiming of victim status (in Deborah Tannen’s great phrase, “taking the lower hand”), saying that “religious organizations will lose financial funding that allows them to serve others in the national interest due to their organizational identity.” Religious organizations are not at risk under this executive order; for-profit companies owned by individuals who have sincerely held religious beliefs that may have nothing to do with the work by which they make their profits are the potential beneficiaries of this request. There is a veiled threat that such organizations will not be able to “serve those in need” because somehow their “religious identities” are under threat.

We are not told which organizations are under threat, what vital services will be withheld from those in need if this request for a “robust religious exemption” is not granted, how the “capacity of religious organizations” will be “limited”, or the foreseeable ways in which the “common good” will suffer.

There are a lot of darkly veiled, vague threats that come into play. Religious liberty is being undermined. Vital services to “those in need” will suffer.

There is a certain degree of coalition forming and appeal to affiliation–almost always a prelude to creating in-groups and out-groups. Cheryl Dellasega gives some brilliant examples of this in her fine book Mean Girls Grown Up, but this is in no way limited to female human beings. I’ve in fact argued that it is rampant at all levels of religious organizations in my essay in this book. They appeal to President Obama’s earlier opposition to same-sex marriage, rooted in his Christian faith, to essentially say “you are one of us, and therefore you owe us this.” Under the law, no, he does not.

It is perhaps true, as they say, that “religious beliefs are at the foundation of some of America’s greatest charities and service organizations that do incredible good for our nation and for the world.” But it is not for charities and service organizations that religious exemption is being sought (as said earlier, it is already enshrined in law for those institutions, and special pleading is not needed). It is on behalf of for-profit corporations who wish to invoke federal law to gain an exemption from complying with federal law, and profit by potentially gaining federal contracts and money to do so.

Brilliantly, the only signatories to the letter are people who, either as individuals or in representative capacities for their organizations, do not need this exemption. One has to wonder for whom they are speaking, and why the organizations that need an exemption on religious grounds are unwilling to request it on their own behalf.

If this does not seem just a little bit crazy, I don’t know what does.

It gives all Christians a bad name, and is more than a little embarrassing.

The right to practice your religion, and to get exemptions on the basis of being an organization whose religious purposes are clear and publicly understood, is already enshrined in law. But even “free exercise” does not come without some cost. Part of that cost is that you won’t get everything you want. And even within the Christian system, you have to make choices between conflicting religious values. You have to choose whether you want to do all the good you claim your faith inspires, or if you want to discriminate against a subset of all those people you believe to be made in the image of God.

The choice is yours, but as a federal contractor, you can’t have it both ways.

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