Massachusetts Court: Religious Liberty and Rights of LGBT People Can Co-Exist, But Not According to Right-Wing Frame

In a much-watched case, a court in Massachusetts has dealt a significant blow to institutions claiming the right to discriminate against people whose identities or behaviors they find objectionable. It did so in a way that clearly draws the boundaries around reasonable definitions of religious liberty, and that offers good news to LGBT people working for some religiously-affiliated organizations.

In the case in question, Matthew Barrett had been offered a position as Food Services Manager at Fontbonne Academy, a Catholic high school in the greater Boston area. After accepting the job, Barrett completed the requisite employment forms. In so doing, he listed his husband as his emergency contact. This led Fontbonne to withdraw the offer of employment, saying Mr. Barrett's marriage to another man was inconsistent with Catholic Church teachings.

In defending its actions, Fontbonne Academy used all of the arguments advanced by religious institutions that want to uphold very narrow views of acceptable behavior or identity. The school claimed it should be exempt from non-discrimination laws because, as a Catholic institution, it should be able to set standards for its employees and should not be forced to "endorse" behavior it condemns, and because of "ministerial exemption." Each of these claims was rejected by the court.

The school claimed it had the right to withdraw the employment offer because, by marrying another man, Mr. Barrett engaged in a non-protected behavior that violates the school's principles. In dozens of cases in recent years, Catholic officials have fired employees and volunteers in same-sex marriages, because they say that marrying a person of the same sex is a public rejection of Catholic teaching. Even when employees have gone to great lengths to keep their sexual orientation and relationships private, the existence of a public record is seen as flaunting Church teaching. In this case, as in many others, the school could not prove that Mr. Barrett did anything other than exercise his civil right to marry the person he loves. He did not challenge the Church's right to advocate for its own beliefs, or to define sacramentality as it chooses. He simply was honest in completing a form required of all employees.

The school claimed that the state's existing religious exemption laws afforded it the right to decline employment. However, since the school has long both served and hired non-Catholics, it does not meet the standard of having people of a single faith as its members. And, as decades of surveys have demonstrated, even a majority of Catholics disagree with Church teachings on many issues, including civil marriage for same-sex couples. So, even if all of the employees and students at Fontbonne were Catholic, there is likely to be a wide divergence of beliefs and practices among the community members. This lack of consistency leads to real questions about expectations and appropriate standards within Catholic, and presumably other, faith-affiliated institutions.

Finally, religious organizations have attempted to claim that all employees should be subject to "ministerial exemptions." No one disagrees that churches, mosques and temples have the right to set standards for those directly responsible for leading services and directing religious education of a congregation. However, it is not clear that other positions need to be subject to such restrictions. It is very difficult to argue that a Food Service Manager, or even a Math teacher, is really in a ministerial role at a Catholic school.

Over and over, Catholics have asserted that they prioritize professional skill, talent and commitment over identity or status when evaluating the job done by people who work for religiously affiliated organizations. They do believe in the Church's teaching that work is sacred and should be valued, and that all workers should be respected and free from discrimination. They know this principle should be applied to LGBT people, including those who marry their beloveds. Therefore, the Massachusetts court decision will be welcomed by the majority of Catholics, and will hopefully set the tone for others to follow. Catholic institutions exist to serve people, not to impose narrow standards of morality upon the community. This decision is entirely in line with that goal.