Events in the real world continue to mock the assertion by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito that his majority opinion in the Hobby Lobby case is a “narrow” one.
Alito maintained that his June 30 decision concerned only the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act and, practically speaking, exempted only closely held family companies from its enforcement.
But Hobby Lobby’s children keep proliferating. The big issue at the moment is a pending executive order from the White House barring discrimination by federal contractors against LGBT (that is, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people.
In recent days, President Obama has received letters from more than 70 civil rights groups, including the NAACP and ACLU, asking him to resist calls to soften the order by including a religious exemption. A similar letter came from 54 law professors and legal scholars.
The trigger for all this was a letter sent to Obama on July 1 -- the very day after the Hobby Lobby ruling came down -- by 14 self-described “religious and civic leaders” seeking a religious exemption from the coming anti-discrimination rule. Among the signatories, some of whom have been close to Obama or even worked for him in the White House, are Rick Warren, senior pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, and Father Larry Snyder, chief executive of Catholic Charities USA.
This remarkable letter implicitly raises questions about what it means to be religious in general or Christian specifically in America today, what role supposedly sincere religious beliefs have in the workplace, and how anyone can seek to discriminate on moral grounds.
The most eloquent answer to these questions came from Martin Luther King in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” More on that in a moment.
The theme of the July 1 letter is that while no one likes prejudice -- “We agree that banning discrimination is a good thing,” the authors state generously -- there’s a time and place for everything. And this may not be the time and place to force religious organizations to accept LGBT equality because it might make them very uncomfortable. And you don’t want to make charitable people uncomfortable:
“We are asking that an extension of protection for one group not come at the expense of faith communities whose religious identity and belief motivate them to serve those in need.”
Let’s not move too fast, they write. “We still live in a nation with different beliefs about sexuality. We must find a way to respect diversity of opinion on this issue.” A religious exemption would allow for “balancing the government’s interest in protecting both LGBT Americans, as well as the religious organizations that seek to serve.”
Essentially, they want to be allowed to continue to accept money from the federal government to fund their good works without being “disqualified or disadvantaged in obtaining contracts because of their religious beliefs.”
The remarkable thing about these words is that faith leaders could still utter them in 2014, despite the blot on churches’ moral standing left by religious leaders’ resistance to desegregation in the 1960s.
It’s unsurprising that Martin Luther King’s words, written in 1963, anticipate these churchly arguments being made on behalf of exclusion and discrimination a half-century later. It’s because he heard the same thing in his own time.
King’s letter was addressed to eight white religious leaders of Birmingham -- nominally liberal clergymen of the Episcopal, Methodist, Catholic, Presbyterian, Baptist and Jewish faiths -- who had criticized him for leading sit-ins protesting the city’s segregation ordinances; he was arrested and jailed for violating an anti-demonstration injunction. King’s protest was “unwise and untimely,” they said, an “extreme” measure likely to extinguish the “new hope” for racial peace being seen in the city.
King recognized this criticism as an effort by a privileged majority to hang on to its privileges just a little while more. But he recognized that to them, there never is a right time -- “I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was ‘well-timed’ according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation,” he wrote.
King condemned the “sanctimonious trivialities” of white churchmen, uttered from behind “the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.” The contemporary church “is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound,” he wrote. “It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo."
In his most thunderous passage, he wrote: “The Negro’s greatest stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
Could these words apply any better to the signatories of the July 1 letter to President Obama? They also counsel moderation. They counsel delay. They plead discomfort. The head of Catholic Charities, which publishes a code of ethics that disallows “unjust discriminatory behaviors against individuals served” on the basis of “sexual orientation,” pleads for the latitude to practice such discrimination in the workplace because he doesn’t want to miss out on federal contracts. The pastor of a Southern California megachurch apparently believes that anti-LGBT discrimination should be condoned in the name of “diversity of opinion.”
It’s doubtful that any of the pious, hand-wringing signatories of the July 1 document ever read King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail”; if they had, they could not have put their names to their own letter without shame.
If President Obama is to uphold the faith that millions of Americans put in his promise to govern over “one America,” the executive order forbidding LGBT discrimination is an acid test.
The signers of the July 1 letter have already failed it. Their act points to one other line from King’s jailhouse missive: “The judgment of God is upon the church as never before."
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