WASHINGTON (CNS) — Catholic agencies were studying President Barack Obama’s executive order that expands the prohibition on employment discrimination to include sexual orientation and gender by the federal government and nonprofit agencies and corporations that receive federal contracts.
The scrutiny comes because the July 21 order does not spell out a specific exemption for religious organizations that contract with the government.
Representatives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Charities USA, Catholic Relief Services and the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities told Catholic News Service the order continues to be reviewed.
The organizations or their members currently hold contracts or have at one time contracted with the government for services. In some cases, the contracts have been worth millions of dollars.
The USCCB has been the most vocal of the agencies in commenting on the executive order. A spokeswoman for the USCCB said the bishops feared the order would force the conference to abandon the possibility of applying for future government contracts because of the employment requirements.
“We obviously have some trouble with the language of gender identity and sexual orientation. We feel that’s very, very broad. It’s ill defined,” said Melissa Swearingen, adviser and spokeswoman for USCCB president, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky.
“I don’t think our lawyers have finished analyzing if we will actively lose contracts right at the moment, but certainly it’s a violation of our religious freedom if we can’t even apply for anything in the future,” she told Catholic News Service July 22.
“As a Catholic institution, and we’re considered a church by some people’s definition, we should have the right to be able to define our own identity. We’re a faith-based organization. Actually there’s many other Catholic and other faith-based organizations that have a right to ask their employees (to uphold) reasonable standards in terms of conduct, in terms of beliefs,” Swearingen continued.
The order, according to the White House, leaves in place an exemption for religiously affiliated contractors to favor individuals of a particular religion when making employment decisions as outlined in a December 2002 executive order signed by President George W. Bush.
Only federal contractors and federally assisted construction contractors and subcontractors doing more than $10,000 in government business in a year are covered by Obama’s order.
Without the exemptions for religious organizations specifically spelled out, Swearingen expressed concern about how the Obama administration will implement the order.
“It doesn’t mention the Bush regulation at all, so we’re assuming that the Bush regulation would still be in effect with the limited protections it has. But it’s not referenced,” she said.
The executive order puts in place a key provision in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act introduced in Congress over the last 20 years but never passed. The U.S. bishops have long opposed ENDA, as the bill is called, saying it goes beyond the scope of prohibiting unjust discrimination.
The USCCB currently holds no federal contacts. Its last contract, through the Migration and Refugee Services department, expired in 2011. Johnny Young, MRS director, said his office does provide services under cooperative agreements, which are not covered under the order.
Programs funded under federal grants also are not covered by the order.
However, Catholic Charities USA and CRS provide a variety of services with government funds. Individual ACCU members also have contracted with the government for research and services under other programs.
In a statement released July 23, CRS said it was “concerned about the serious implications of the president’s order for Catholic agencies now and in the future.”
“As an agency of the USCCB, we will work with the bishops to promote a mutually acceptable solution,” the statement said. “We remain hopeful that compassion and goodwill will rule and that our work on behalf of the poor around the world will not be unduly affected.”
A spokesman for CRS declined further comment.
ACCU President Michael Galligan-Stierle said in an emailed statement that the organization “stands with both the president and the U.S. bishops — each of whom has affirmed the principles of human dignity and diversity as key values of our nation and our faith.”
“Where differences arise is in determining how to put those principles into practice, which can be complicated. Given that, ACCU is conferring with other faith-based organizations to determine the extent to which the executive order applies to our member colleges and universities. We remain hopeful that common ground between principle and practice may be found,” the statement said.
Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, reiterated to CNS July 22 that the agency found the executive order upholds already existing religious exemptions. He said he was among religious leaders who met with White House staff to discuss the executive order before it was issued.
“With the president leaving the exemptions in that we already had, we’re able to continue working as we already have,” Father Snyder told CNS.
Catholic Charities USA operates with the understanding that its staff in key positions must uphold church teaching, Father Snyder said.
“We say there are certain positions that are positions of leadership and you represent the organization and your represent the church and you have to believe and live Catholic teaching,” he explained. “For us, those positions are very few.”
While the vast majority of diocesan Catholic Charities programs do not contract with the federal contracts, those that do would have to meet the requirements of the executive order once it takes effect, he said.
Sister Carol Keehan, a member of the Daughters of Charity who is president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, told CNS no member hospitals hold federal contracts although some have received government grants for services. She said the organization had no comment on the president’s order.
Swearingen said the USCCB was not involved in discussions with the White House before the order was issued.
However, she said the bishops’ conference was planning to submit comments to the Department of Labor, which is charged with drafting rules for implementing the order within 90 days.