Catholic Bishops versus Tolerance

While you were away from your computer over the holiday break, Catholic bishops escalated the latest tactic in what we once called "the culture wars": accusing pro-diversity and gay-equality forces of religious intolerance. Here's how it works. A government—state or federal—implements a nondiscrimination law and requires all of its contractors to abide by it. But some of those contractors are religious groups—say, Catholic Charities—and refuse to abide by a nondiscrimination policy that would require them to consider same-sex couples as prospective parents for foster care or adoption. Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times notes:

For the nation’s Catholic bishops, the Illinois requirement is a prime example of what they see as an escalating campaign by the government to trample on their religious freedom while expanding the rights of gay people. The idea that religious Americans are the victims of government-backed persecution is now a frequent theme not just for Catholic bishops, but also for Republican presidential candidates and conservative evangelicals.

“In the name of tolerance, we’re not being tolerated,” said Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield, Ill.

Critic and cultural gadfly Stanley Fish has long pointed out this limit to the secular ethos of tolerance: It is a belief system and as such is incompatible with other true-belief systems. If you truly believe that, say, same-sex couples are immoral and damned, of course you can't let them adopt and raise children to be damned as well. Maggie Gallagher, a major voice in the anti-same-sex-marriage movement, has been pushing this particular line for about 15 years: LGBT equality means religious inequality, and each time there's an LGBT win, there's a religious loss.

But I have two problems with the Catholic bishops' push on this. First: In practice, Catholic Charities has been letting lesbian- and gay-headed families foster and adopt for a long time, without checking with the higher-ups. Many of those social workers have truly wanted the best for their hard-to-place children, and they've known that gay parents did a much better job than no parents. The bishops are making a ruckus because the "don't ask, don't tell" era of child placement has come to an end. Who suffers? Needy children.

Second, religious freedom does not mean freedom to do whatever you want with the government's money. Catholics, evangelicals, and all the rest are free to discriminate within their own charities. In fact, we all do; each of us decides where we believe our money would do the most good, whether that's buying a sweater or donating to a political campaign or handing money to those guys with the highway signs. But when a group is doing the public's work with the public's money, that group must abide by our shared public consensus about what's ethical.

The bishops are losing in the court of public opinion. More and more, the American public—and American Catholics—understand that lesbians and gay men are no better or worse at being parents than our heterosexual siblings. Check out Pew Research's findings last spring on how U.S. citizens feel about lesbians or gay men marrying and parenting, by demographic group, political group, and religion.

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