Churches exempt from anti-discrimination laws
By Rich Miller
The reaction by the religious right to the passage of a gay rights law in Illinois has been predictably loud and aggrieved. But the laws critics have universally zeroed in on one key argument a claim that churches and religious institutions will now be forced by the government to hire gays and lesbians.
Their fears were inflamed not long ago when the laws chief Senate sponsor, Carol Ronen, was quoted in the Sun-Times saying, "If that is their goal, to discriminate against gay people, this law wouldnt allow them to do that. But I dont believe thats what the Catholic Church wants or stands for."
The Illinois Family Institute issued a press release claiming that the law would mean "churches, synagogues, mosques, religious schools, and religious businesses... will now have to disregard their faith and religious teaching to embrace an irreligious and amoral mandate by government."
The opponents have also repeatedly quoted a brief analysis by Ungaretti & Harris employment law attorney Nicholas Anaclerio, which concluded: "(W)hile adding another protected status to Illinois Human Rights Act, the measure may ultimately force courts to consider and balance its ban on sexual orientation discrimination with State and Federal constitutional safeguards of religious freedom."
Anaclerios analysis has been passed around on the Internet and has even come to the attention of the Catholic Conference of Illinois. The Conferences executive director, Robert Gilligan, said he would like to see "some additional protections spelled out," for churches that believe homosexuality is immoral.
Gilligan said he has been in contact with several state legislators who have offered to introduce a an amendment to the gay rights law to take churches out of the equation, but he said no decision has yet been made.
"People working for the Church should be leading their lives in accordance with the Churchs teaching," Gilligan said, posing the question of what would happen if someone living an openly gay lifestyle was working in a church-owned childcare center, a school or even in a church itself. "Could they argue theyre protected?"
This is a legitimate question because religious liberty is specifically spelled out in the US Constitution. And its also legitimate because if the General Assembly just passed, and the governor signed, an unconstitutional bill on behalf of such a controversial minority there could be hell to pay at the polls next year. Even though several Republicans voted for the bill, the GOP could use the issue to pound even the Democrats who didnt vote for it, arguing their party is too radical to be trusted with the reins of government. This will happen anyway, but toss in an outrageous infringement on the freedom of churches and religious institutions, and... oy.
Still, this church issue is much ado about nothing.
The states Human Rights Act specifically and very clearly exempts religious institutions from all the states employment discrimination laws. This means that church-operated schools, for instance, dont have to employ anyone in a protected class, including gays, including women, including blacks, including foreigners. Period.
Sen. Ronen claims her comments were misunderstood. "We just added another protected category," Ronen said last week. "The religious exemption was already part of existing law."
Rick Garcia, director of Equality Illinois, the states largest gay rights group, agreed with Ronen. Garcia noted that the states Human Rights Act also protects people based on their marital status, but says that Catholic schools are free to fire teachers and other employees who get a divorce. Garcia also pointed to a Catholic school in Chicago which expelled two unmarried students after they became pregnant.
"Im a Catholic," Garcia said, "And I dont want the government telling the Church what to do." Garcia said his organization has argued that "religious institutions can basically do what they want. They have special rights and special privileges."
Even Ungarettis Nicholas Anaclerio, who has become an unwitting hero to the Right in the last couple of weeks, is urging the opponents to step back. "I didnt then and I dont now take a position about whether it does affect the abridgment of religious liberties." Anaclerio also said he is not claiming that the law is an unconstitutional infringement on religious liberties. "Thats not what I said. And I wouldnt have said that without a whole lot more study of it."
In other words, dont believe the myth. If youre the principal of a Catholic high school, you dont have to hire a gay man.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at capitolfax.blogspot.com.