July 29, 2016

Attorney, panel weigh in on ‘religious freedom in the workplace’

Peter Breen, left, Luci Snyder, Neil Rafferty and Mark Titus are part of a panel discussion during a “Religious Freedom in the Workplace” presentation held at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Carmel, Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese on June 18. (Submitted photo by Brigid Curtis Ayer)

Peter Breen, left, Luci Snyder, Neil Rafferty and Mark Titus are part of a panel discussion during a “Religious Freedom in the Workplace” presentation held at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Carmel, Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese on June 18. (Submitted photo by Brigid Curtis Ayer)

By Brigid Curtis Ayer (Special to The Criterion)

Carmel, Ind.—Religious liberty expert Peter Breen outlined real and potential concerns facing citizens locally and across the country as new sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) ordinances advance.

Breen’s June 18 presentation titled “Religious Freedom in the Workplace” was followed by a panel discussion of local business people and community leaders. The event was hosted at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Carmel, Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese.

Breen, who serves as special counsel to the St. Thomas More Society, a national public interest law firm in Chicago, gave an overview of religious liberty and various SOGI legal cases around the U.S. According to Breen, uncertainties are being created across the country as local governments pass similar ordinances.

The current trend to create or expand SOGI legislation may be moving Christians into “second-class citizens status,” said Breen, as Christians’ ability to freely exercise their faith is encroached upon.

Breen noted one obstacle in the challenge to protect religious freedom is the way people define the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.

“The Catholic Church has a very robust idea of free exercise,” Breen said. He added that proponents of SOGI legislation believe the freedom of worship is applied in a limited sense to what is done behind the four walls of a church.

“Christianity requires going forth to preach the Gospel to all nations,” Breen said. “We can’t do that behind the walls of the church.”

Breen also highlighted a key difference in the current debate over marriage, gender dysphoria, abortion and religious freedom from years ago involving the basis of reason. Supporters of abortion and SOGI ordinances “no longer feel constrained to argue from reason and truth,” Breen said. “In the Catholic Christian tradition, we have always said that our faith builds on reason. We are the ones talking about science and biology.” He added this difference creates challenges in framing or engaging in dialogue on these issues.

Breen’s presentation was followed by a panel discussion of business and community leaders. In addition to Breen, panelists included Mark Titus, chief operating officer of Schneider Corporation, an Indianapolis telecommunications company; Neil Rafferty, a business instructor at St. Theodore Guérin High School in Noblesville and private practice attorney; and Luci Snyder, a former Carmel City Council member who served on the council when the local SOGI ordinance was passed.

The city of Carmel’s SOGI ordinance, which is an example of ordinances that could be passed in other local communities across the country, was passed last October and grants the Carmel city attorney the discretion to issue a warning or a fine up to $500 for the first offense of discrimination against a member of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Additional offenses can include fines up to $500 daily until the act of discrimination has been resolved.

Panelists were asked the impact of such an ordinance.

Snyder said that one of the problems with the Carmel ordinance—and something to look for in other attempted SOGI ordinances throughout the country—is that the terms “gender identity” and “presentation” are not defined, and missing definitions of these terms are “very movable.”

She added that she had hoped for a longer debate so that some of these concerns could be clarified or addressed, but once emotion entered the debate the chance of improving the language was “doomed.”

Panelists were asked what potential impact the ordinance could have on their business. Titus said it could cause him to be in a position to violate his beliefs, limit how he operates his life and business, or re-evaluate what types of businesses he and others enter. He added these kinds of ordinances are chipping at the “core values” that Catholics share.

Rafferty said one of the things that attracted him to the job at Guérin High School was that he could teach about the truths of the faith in unison with the magisterium of the Church, and impart a “strong Catholic identity.”

Among his concerns is the type of message an ordinance like this sends to youths.

“Young people are very impressionable,” he said. “When [the city of] Carmel is telling you, the state is telling you and the president of the United States is telling you ‘Catholics are wrong,’ that’s hard to resist.”

Snyder said that the City Council did not discuss the kinds of accommodations businesses would have to make as a result of the ordinance. If a business refuses to serve a problematic customer or perform a job they don’t want to do and the customer fits into a protected class—even if the refusal has nothing to do with a customer’s sexual orientation or gender identity—that business could be fined if a complaint is filed, she said.

Denise McGonigal, a member of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish, said she and others often struggle on how to respond to the labeling they hear.

“If you have a moral problem with gay ‘marriage,’ you’re considered anti-gay or a bigot,” she said. “I’m not anti-gay; I have a moral problem with gay ‘marriage.’ ”

In response, Breen said that it is important to recognize that disagreement is not discrimination.

“Discrimination is wrong, but what we do is not discrimination,” he said. “What we do in the Catholic Church, in our Catholic schools, in our dioceses—we are not discriminating, period.” Breen added if you are confronted or labeled as being discriminatory, “You need to stop and address that right away. Don’t let that go unchallenged.”

Afterward, Glenn Tebbe executive director of the Indiana Catholic Conference, who serves as the legislative and public policy spokesperson for the Church in Indiana, said afterward currently there are 20 local SOGI ordinances in Indiana.

“Religious freedom requires the opportunity to live and conduct one’s private and public life in accord with one’s conscience and faith,” Tebbe said. “Disapproval of one’s conduct or lifestyle should not cause us to shutter our institutions or ministries. Private business owners need the freedom to follow their conscience without threat of penalty.”

(Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion.)

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