2.23.2012

Vanderbilt and the Catholic Church - Organizations limiting religious freedom

Introduction
Father Araujo suggests in his piece, What is Freedom, that the distinction between who is pursuing a self-serving course of action and who is pursuing the other-serving course of action is clear. I agree. The Catholic Churches decision to limit the religious freedom of the people it serves as an employer when it acts as public employer is perceived by many as being self-serving. The freedom that faith affiliated public institutions want in relationship to the federal government is the same freedom they are denying to their employees who have a different faith or no faith at all. While freedom of religion is paramount, and I will argue on behalf of religious freedom momentarily, public employers that hire a plurality of people with unique views have unique responsibilities to their employees. In this pluralistic context, religious views should not allow the employer to impinge on the freedom, often the religious freedom of the employee. While people should have the freedom to associate, that freedom should not hinder the freedom of people in the minority at public institutions or private organizations that are free and open to the public, such as a faith based public hospitals.

To be clear, I would like to draw a sharp distinction between distinctively faith-based organizations such as churches, and those that choose to be open to the public. When they become public employers, employing people of a variety of faiths or no faith at all, public organization take on special responsibilities to the community and to individuals, among them, the responsibility not to infringe on the liberty of their employees.

Vanderbilt and the Catholic Church
A similar example of this can be seen in the recent Vanderbilt University case. In that case, a private organization that is open to the public, has taken the position that no student organization can discriminate against any student that wants to be a member of, or even an officer of a student organization, based on race, religion, sex, etc… The result is that it is possible for a person of Jewish faith to hold the position of treasurer in an Islamic affiliated organization, or an atheist to head a Christian organization. As a result, the Christian Legal Society (CLS) has advocated against this position because their constitution states that one has to be a Christian to be an officer of the Christian Legal Society.

The irony is that Vanderbilt’s position corresponds to the Catholic Churches position.