Church’s article on religious liberty gives wrong impressions of legal cases

There’s no question that American society is becoming more secular, and it’s understandable why leaders of the LDS church (and other churches) are concerned that our legal system and social structures will place less value on the practice of religion than they have in the past. As someone who believes in freedom of expression for people of all faiths (or none), I share those concerns.

I would hope that in promoting the cause of religious liberty that the church would present the issues at hand in a truthful manner worthy of emulation by all sides. Sadly, the church’s Newsroom fails to meet that standard in its latest foray into the issue, an article called Other Examples of Attacks on Religious Conscience and Free Exercise. Not only does the article get some major facts wrong, it also is misleading by leaving key facts out or describing events inaccurately. I’m not in a position to say whether the false directions the article takes were intentional — I certainly hope not — but, regardless, the misdirection to readers isn’t helpful to the cause. Most importantly, as an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”), this use of tactics that appear less than honest makes me sad.

The article lists five examples of court cases described as attacks on religious freedoms and includes brief comments on their significance. I’ll briefly explain the problems with each of those examples.

Employment Example 1: The article says: “A Baptist-affiliated organization that places at-risk children in adoption or foster care terminated an employee because her admitted homosexual lifestyle was contrary to the organization’s core values. Accusing the organization of sexual orientation discrimination, she brought a federal lawsuit that the organization is still defending against more than a decade later. … Businesses that publicly operate according to religious beliefs should have the freedom to hire based on religious criteria they deem necessary to ensure that the working environment is supportive of those beliefs.”

The article’s description of the dispute (Pedreira v. Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children, Inc.) is correct as far as it goes. What is left out is that the child-services institution received a substantial amount of its revenue from taxpayers, about $12.5 million per year from the state of Kentucky. Certainly, there’s no question, at least to me, that a sectarian institution fully funded by a church and/or private donations should be able to set hiring policies informed by the church’s beliefs. But it’s a different matter when taxpayers are footing the bill.

Employment Example 2: The article says: “A New York City restaurant was ordered to pay $1.6 million to a lesbian chef and manager for allegedly discriminating based on sexual orientation and religion because the restaurant held weekly prayer meetings and the owner expressed the view that homosexual conduct is sinful.”

The best that can be said is that the description of the case (Salemi v. Gloria’s Tribeca, Inc.) substantially understates what the jury found, even though it was instructed that “[d]discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or religion must be beyond what is considered petty slights and trivial inconveniences.”

According to the appeals court, “[t]he record evidence, which is extensive and corroborated by multiple witnesses, amply supports the jury’s verdict that, in violation of the New York City Human Rights Law (City HRL), plaintiff’s employer, defendant Edward Globokar, the principal of Gloria’s Tribecamex Inc., which owned the restaurant where plaintiff worked as chef and manager, discriminated against her based on her religion and sexual orientation by, amongst other things, holding weekly prayer meetings at the restaurant where plaintiff worked which the staff viewed as mandatory, fearing that they would lose their jobs if they did not attend, repeatedly stating that homosexuality is ‘a sin,’ and that ‘gay people’ were ‘going to go to hell’ and generally subjecting her to an incessant barrage of offensive anti-homosexual invective.” Is that really the kind of employer “religious freedom” we want to be defending?

Employment Example 3: The article says: “A Minnesota health club, owned by Evangelical Christians and operated in light of biblical principles, was ordered by the Minnesota Supreme Court in 1985 to stop hiring only employees who shared their religious beliefs in order to comply with state nondiscrimination laws.”

I doubt whether anyone in the Newsroom even read this case (Blanding v. Sports & Health Club, Inc.), which didn’t have anything to do with employment discrimination. The case involved whether the health club could, in effect, apply different standards of conduct for gay members than it did for its straight members. And even if this were an employment case, do we really want to be arguing that it’s OK for a nonreligious business to hire only evangelical Christians?

Housing Example 1: The article says: “A private Jewish university in New York City was sued by a lesbian couple for its policy of reserving its married student housing for male-female couples. The state’s highest court ruled that the university’s policy could be challenged as violating the city’s ordinance barring housing discrimination based on sexual orientation. … Religious schools should have the freedom to establish values-based regulations for student housing, including regulations separating male and female housing and protecting values of privacy, modesty and sexual morality.”

I can’t disagree that religious schools should be free to base policies regarding school-owned housing on their religious standards. But is that what this case (Levin v. Yeshiva Univ.) was about? Apparently not. The school conceded from the outset that its housing was subject to city antidiscrimination law. And, according to the appeals court, “All parties agree that Yeshiva’s religious affiliations have no bearing on this appeal. Also, plaintiffs did not plead claims based on either the State or Federal Constitution.”

It also should be noted that while the court did indeed rule that the school’s policy could be challenged, the lesbian plaintiffs’ challenge was not successful.

Housing Example 2: The article says: “In 1996 the California Supreme Court ruled that a devout Presbyterian widow with traditional Christian morals violated state law when she desired to rent one of her properties only to couples who are married. The court explained that the widow could avoid compromising her religious beliefs by getting out of the rental business altogether. … Small landlords and landlords renting units closely associated with their family living arrangements should have the freedom to determine who will occupy such units.”

The description of the case (Smith v. Fair Employment & Housing Com.) is technically accurate. But the wording here would suggest to the average reader that this widow’s property was “closely associated with [her] living arrangements.” The article’s author apparently wants readers to believe that this situation was something like that of a person who wants to rent out an apartment in her basement and doesn’t want the tenant unduly influencing her children. But that was not the case here. The widow did not live on the premises and visited the buildings only for purposes of maintenance and operations. By any legal standard, she was operating a typical, although small, housing business.

Final comment: It should be obvious by now that the results of these cases don’t portend the type of constitutional doomsday scenario that the Newsroom apparently wants us to think they do. As such, they’re not helpful to the debate over religious liberties. These accounts may even be counterproductive in that their implicit dishonesty presents the Church in less than a positive light.

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