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.


The Catholic Church does not want to be required to spend money to advance a view or a practice that it is opposed to, and neither does Vanderbilt. There is no rule against the CLS freely associating; Vanderbilt would argue that they simply cannot be recognized as an official student group, and they can’t use private university funds and resources such as classroom space. To do so would be in contradiction to Vanderbilt’s values, and their intent to advance their own vision of the common good. Vanderbilt could very well argue that forcing them to fund what they see as discriminatory practices would be immoral, and might well be against some of their staff or faculties religious beliefs.

Both the Catholic Church and Vanderbilt are wrong. When an association becomes open to the public and actively seeks community involvement and support, as well as financial resources, then they should not be allowed to use the power of their association to infringe on individual liberty and in this case, individual religious liberty.

An Employee’s Freedom of Conduct
When employees lose a benefit they would otherwise receive, it limits their freedom of conduct. When they lose the benefit due to the employers religious views, that is a problem further still. If there is no compromise, than one of these two groups will have to forgo something they would otherwise have were it not for the religious beliefs of the other. Father Araujo states that the difference is that the first group, comprising advocates for religious freedom, does not ask the second group to pay for their freedom. This statement is factually wrong. Employee’s earn their benefits through their time and effort, and then forgo a benefit they would have at a comparable institution due only to the employer’s religious beliefs.

They are not receiving something from the employer as a matter of gratuity, they have earned the benefit. To have a benefit denied to an individual on the basis of another’s religion is an assault on the second person’s liberty, quite possible their religious liberty. Countless women have taken jobs at a healthcare facilities which they may or may not have known was affiliated with the Catholic Church, only to learn after the fact that their input of time and effort would be rewarded in a way that was inconsistent with their religious beliefs or none at all, and which would benefit an organization working against their interests.

Coercive Conduct Limits Religious Freedom
Father Araujo would no doubt argue that the employer is not limiting what the employee can do with their own money, they are simply opting not to pay for what the Catholic institution considers immoral. It is worth noting that the employee might well buy contraceptives with money that came from the Catholic institution in the form of a salary. Also note that Vanderbilt could take a similar position. However both of these positions are disingenuous because the employer is withholding a common form of compensation in the case of the employee, or a common student right in the case of the university. These are rights and compensation that the employee or student would otherwise have. Both Vanderbilt and the Catholic Church seek to limit their constituent’s freedom based on a desire to impose their own will, or at the least not be party to the constituent’s desires which are in conflict with the parent organization. Both Vanderbilt and the Catholic Church are coercing their constituents conduct in a way that is at odds with those people’s individual beliefs possibly based on religion.

In Defense of Religious Freedom
This brings us to our chief concern, religious freedom. Why do I use the phrase religious freedom? Is my outlook as Father Araujo suggests, shaped by a secular view that each person has “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life?” It is not. While it is unclear to me why a particular denomination such as the Catholic Church should control the definition of these things, or why a secular based organization like Vanderbilt should be able to control its student organizations, my view is not synonymous with the view in Planned Parenthood v. Casey that Father Araujo noted. Rather, it is rooted in a long standing religious belief that each person is responsible before their Creator for their actions, and that fidelity to conscience is paramount.

Furthermore, it is my contention that it is paramount for the individual in a way that it is not for the organization. Is the person whose signature appears on the pay check of a religiously affiliated employer morally responsible for how that money is spent by the employee? No. Is the employer responsible for how contraceptives are used if they are made available, especially considering the fact that they have medical purposed outside of preventing pregnancy? No. How the employee uses their befits, both their salary and their medical benefits, is the moral responsibility of the employee. Whether the employee uses the contraceptive for good of for ill, or even if contraceptives are in themselves good or evil should be up to the employee.

If a religious organization like the Catholic Church, or a Secular organization like Vanderbilt cannot in good faith abide by these standards, then they are free to leave the public sphere. What they ought not be able to do is enter the public arena, offer goods and services to the public in a way that invites full participation and then impose their views on an unsuspecting employee population or student body.

The argument might in turn be made that if these organizations cannot impose their will, why then is the government able to do so? The government does not impose a singular view, rather it ought to chiefly arbitrate between competing views. This in turn might indeed lead to “a view” being imposed, but it will not be the singular view of one person or organization, but rather one reached through the democratic process. Even unelected judges are generally appointed by elected representatives. While those that feel compelled to discriminate in the area of housing for instance, on the basis of race, nationality, religion, or sex may feel their freedom to discriminate against others being impinged on by the government, that is a limit on their freedom society has embraced. We embrace that freedom because that housing business has entered into the public arena, and society sees an overwhelming need to protect the interests of minorities, be they racial minorities in the area of housing, or religious minorities at a hospital or university.

Enabling Religious Freedom – Toward the Common Good
When employers, including religious institutions give their employees the freedom to choose how to manage their health care options, those religious institutions increase religious freedom. While Jesus of Nazareth longed to gather his people under his wing as a hen gathers her chicks, he did not force them to. Many religious traditions see in the human form a reflection of the divine. One aspect of that reflection is the autonomy of the individual. Father Araujo argues for this underlying principle well when he draws a distinction between freedom “from” and freedom “for.” The employee should have freedom “from” the controlling dictates of their employer and institutional religion. And in contrast, when the Catholic Church enters the public arena, (in contrast to when they are managing their own affairs) they should not be extended the freedom “for” dictating to others how their faith and healthcare interact. They should respect individual autonomy, and they should do so, because they themselves advocate for human dignity.
I am not suggesting they check their religion at the door. Advocacy is appropriate. Universities like Vanderbilt can speak at length on the evils of discrimination, and the Catholic Church can speak at length on the significant perils of contraceptives for those that are willing to listen. However controlling others and reducing their freedom, their religious freedom no less, is inappropriate. As Father Araujo states, “there are things that are right, good, and proper for the human person to pursue because they affect many and sometimes all other members of the human family.” I agree, and it is for this reason that I believe there are faith-based reasons to use contraceptives. “Those persons with well-formed moral consciences that take stock of the ‘ought’” as Father Araujo said, agree with Lord Acton’s view of “real freedom” that it is a freedom rooted in the common good.

This interest in the common good is what drives many of faith to use contraceptives. Why? Global concerns in the area of economics and the environment, combined with God’s command that we care for creation, and care for the poor and indigent are at the heart of these concerns. For example, a couple noting the great need for foster parents might use contraceptives to help control their own fertility, and their ability to responsibility care for the foster children under their care. The details of how economics, social justice, and environmental concerns dovetail with healthcare and contraceptives are outside the scope of this response. Of concern is the fact that those who disagree with Father Araujo and the Catholic Church do so not necessarily from an anti-faith perspective, but because of our faith. By the same token, those that disagree with the decisions of Vanderbilt University might very well do so out of an interest in true diversity and the liberal aim of fostering a plurality of viewpoints.

What the Catholic Church seeks from the government, it withholds from its employees. The plurality of viewpoints that Vanderbilt seeks, it withholds from its student body organizations. Father Araujo and I may disagree on our vision of the common good, and how to achieve it, particularly as it concerns the use of birth-control. But the concern we share is religious freedom.

1 comment:

David Best said...

A note on this article

It is chiefly a response to an article titled What is Freedom by Father Araujo a professor of law at Loyola University, which was published on the blog Mirror of Justice.

It should be said at the outset that my response is colored by my perception of Father Araujo’s article. He submits that who is in the right is clear, and that his opponents are self-serving. In the face of this kind of characterization, I cannot help but respond in kind. I should add though, that I am merely a first year law student at St. Thomas University, and lack the experience and depth of expertise possessed my Father Araujo and others.

This is not meant to be a diatribe against the Catholic Church. Though I am a protestant, raised in the Evangelical traidtion, there are many positions and values I share with my fellow Catholic Christians. The Catholic Church has done the church a great service with its long standing tradition of deep and influential moral reasoning. But in the instant case, they get it wrong.

Finally I suspect that representatives in this argument that wished to reach a compromise probably could. Unfortunately, where religion is involved compromise is difficult to achieve. For that reason, I am not inclined to shrink from the task of countering an attack on my religious freedom, and I am sure the same is true for Father Araujo. Whether there is anything to gain from this exchange is a question worth asking. But I would hope that having staked out our respective positions; we could then find room for respectful dialog, and even respectful compromise.