One centerpiece of the Biden administration’s legislative agenda is HR 5, the Equality Act of 2021. Its central move is to expand the definition of sex discrimination to include discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. That expanded definition of sex discrimination is coupled with a broader definition of public accommodations that includes “places or establishments that provide (1) exhibitions, recreation, exercise, amusement, gatherings, or displays; (2) goods, services, or programs; and (3) transportation services.” The legislation, moreover, allows the Department of Justice to intervene in cases of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, to add its clout to private claimants.
Proponents of girls and women’s sports and religious liberty have issued powerful objections to this expanded definition of sex discrimination. The Act would permit biological males who self-identify as female to participate in girls and women’s sports. Critics, pointing to the dominance of transgender girls in state track and field meets in Connecticut, insist this move comes at the expense of biological girls and women who are unable to compete successfully for medals and scholarships against their biologically bigger and stronger competitors.
In addition, the act contains no explicit exemption for religious organizations that accept the traditional biological definitions of sex in running their own institutions, including single-sex educational and recreational programs. And the act could exclude these programs from receiving federal support for school lunch programs. Indeed, those religious organizations could no longer rely on the strict-scrutiny standard of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, but instead would be subject to the more forgiving standard articulated in Employment Division v. Smith (1990). This means that any facially neutral law will bind religious organizations even if they suffer far more serious harms from the prohibition, which in Smith took the form of criminalizing Smith for using peyote for sacramental purposes at a bona fide ceremony of his Native American Church.
Neither of these objections, however, cut much ice with supporters of the Equality Act. After a short debate in the House, the act was passed on February 25 by a vote of 224-206, where all Democrats and only three Republicans voted for the bill. Its fate in the Senate, however, remains uncertain. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin—often the tie-breaking vote in the 50-50 Senate—is the lone Democratic holdout and has expressed serious misgivings about the legislation. Even his vote would not let the bill pass without a change to the filibuster rule requiring sixty votes to close debate on any legislative measure.
The Democrats’ monolithic front is disheartening for its willful blindness to opposing arguments. One point commonly made in the act’s favor is that the legislation has the “overwhelming” support of the LGBTQ population, typically by majorities in excess of 70 percent. Properly understood, however, that fact offers yet another reason to oppose the legislation. People who abhor discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity are unlikely to practice it in their businesses. And while the Equality Act stresses the persistent discrimination faced by LGBTQ communities, it does not address the movement’s political and cultural power, nor the vast number of public and private programs dedicated to the protection and advancement of LBGTQ and gender-identify claims.
Why then should this powerful group impose its will on the small fraction of firms and organizations that dissent from its dominant ethos? The Equality Act, for example, pays no attention to the precarious position of many evangelical Christian groups. In a footnote of United States v. Carolene Products (1938), famous in legal circles, the Supreme Court articulated a test requiring that extra constitutional protection be afforded to those “discrete and insular minorities” unable to protect themselves through normal political processes. The insular minorities of today are not the same as those of 1938.
Take Jack Phillips, purveyor of the small Masterpiece Cakeshop who has been sued for his unwillingness to make cakes celebrating same-sex weddings, for that would be inconsistent with his religious beliefs. It is easy to say that the availability of alternative bakeries does not address the “dignitary” interests that are compromised when gay couples are denied service on religious grounds. But what of the dignitary interests of this baker, who has been hounded since he first refused in 2012 to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple?
Phillips—whose case went to the Supreme Court, where his religious liberty rights were partially vindicated—was treated with contempt by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. In essence, the court sent the case back to the Colorado Commission, which had previously insisted that Phillips could not rely on his bona fide religious beliefs in a commercial context, given that, in its view, freedom of religion has been used to justify the “Holocaust.” This is sloppy reasoning and worse history: the more accurate account is that during the Holocaust, vicious groups deployed dogmatic hatreds to justify the use of force to suppress the religious and ethnic liberties of others. The tragedy of Nazi oppression was not the refusal of bigoted Germans to deal with Jewish customers or merchants. It was the brutal use of public force against the Jewish minority.
Defenders of the Equality Act forget or suppress such historical realities in their partisan appeal to some supposed notion of freedom and equality. Thus, President Biden said that the act represents “a critical step toward ensuring that America lives up to our foundational values of equality and freedom for all.” National LGBTQ groups echoed the same theme by hailing the Equality Act as “a major milestone for equality,” which will “finally allow LGBTQ Americans the ability to live their lives free from discrimination.”
These high-minded pronouncements should not blind us to the explicit discrimination that is baked into the proposed law. How can it be “equality and freedom for all” if devout Americans find that their business and religious practices suddenly expose them to criminal sanctions, after which they will be taxed to support government programs from which they are systematically excluded? The president and his supporters seem to forget that the only form of universal equality gives all individuals ample room to decide with whom to associate and why. That principle is not satisfied if religious individuals cannot refuse to deal with gay people while gay people are allowed to refuse to deal with them.
Just such an imbalance was thrown into high relief in the two concurring Masterpiece Cakeshop opinions of Justices Elena Kagan and Neil Gorsuch. In evaluating Phillips’s case, the Colorado courts had cited an earlier episode in which bakers were allowed to refuse service to a customer requesting a cake quoting a biblical declaration against homosexuality on the grounds that those remarks were “offensive.” Justice Gorsuch used this example to insist on the parity of the two situations. He argued that in both cases, bakers “refused service intending only to honor a personal conviction” and were otherwise happy to sell to gay or religious persons, as the case might be. Justice Kagan, however, argued that the gay bakers were within their rights even though the basic statute also prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion.
Discrimination on grounds of religion is supposedly covered by the Equality Act, but in practice, the act is being read to reject any two-way street based on a universal principle of equal liberty for all and displays an utter want of parity between parties who fall on the opposite side of the civil rights divide. The modern civil and LGBTQ rights movements use the language of “subordination” and “marginalization” to support their cause, but those terms should also be applied to religious minorities who are discriminated against by the very organizations who march under some false banner of universal rights.
There is, to be sure, an important exception to the general rule of freedom of association whereby common carriers and public utilities, owing to their monopoly position, are under a duty to serve all takers. That is, firms must provide fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory terms to all people in the provision of standardized services like rail transportation, gas, and electric power. The underlying notion here is that the monopolist holds too powerful a position when there are no alternative sources of supply. But that exception has no application to firms that operate in competitive industries. The original understanding of a business that is “affected with the public interest” is hopelessly overbroad when the term public accommodation applies to every business, including religious institutions, wholly without regard to their market power.
This basic confusion is further evident in the recent remarks that Senator Charles Schumer made in promoting these false claims of universal freedom and equality. He notes that this “legislation is personal for me and for millions of American families across this country. Just six years ago, LGBTQ Americans like my daughter won the legal right to marry who they love.” But he misses the key distinction between the right to live your own life as you see fit and your right to force those individuals with whom you disagree to supply you with services against their own conscience. The fundamental premise that each person ordinarily has the right to associate with whom they choose does not miss a beat when it is carried over from market arrangements to intimate associations, marriage included. The fact that other individuals find these practices abhorrent only lets them refuse to attend the ceremony, which is why same-sex marriage deserves legal protection. But it is a huge leap from that position to claim that you have the right to force, as a matter of law, people like Jack Phillips to support your activities by taking steps counter to their fundamental religious beliefs.
Religion, like all other belief systems, can be used to defend liberty or to deny it. The same is true of the new crusaders behind the Equality Act. The great tragedy of the misnamed Equality Act is that its ardent supporters are blind to the difference between living your own life and making others bow to your command. And a lot of innocent people will be caught up in the undertow of that progressive mistake.
As we look around at the Christmas decorations, programs, ceremonies, shopping, cards, greetings and the whole Christmas season, what messages do we get? What does it all mean?
Clearly, something unusual and good is in the air. People seem friendlier, parties and benefits are everywhere. Charities, soap kitchens, and the Salvation Army are busier than usual.
When we think of the origin of Christmas, we realize that it began as a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Today, however, it is possible to go through the entire Christmastime without ever hearing that name. Many children are taught that the central figure of Christmas is Santa Claus on his mission of kindness and goodwill.
So, what about this Jesus Christ? Is he still important, even relevant?
Well, we know he must be important if much of the world still celebrates his birthday which happened two millennia ago. With a little research, we can discover that much of the world still belongs to the organization he founded, namely, the Christian church in its many variations.
Why? Why is this man’s influence still felt after so many centuries?
That is a harder question to answer. And there are many answers, some officially pronounced by church authorities, some by individuals. Ultimately, each person must give his/her own answer.
This is my answer.
Christians believe that Jesus Christ was God-come-to-earth, God’s creation of the perfect man. That idea has a richness that confirms our value as human beings, because “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son”, as John’s gospel tells us. In Jesus, we have been given a vision of the perfect human being, the assurance that such a being CAN exist in spite of all the evil and pettiness we see around us.
The coming of Jesus calls us all to a higher version of ourselves, a better self. The coming of Jesus set the standard of human behavior much higher than it had been before. All of us have our failures as human beings, but the fact of Jesus Christ allows us to better understand when we fail and gives us hope that we – and other people, as well — can do better, can be more like the Christ.
Then there is his story. We have only pieces of his story — bio-sketches in the gospels, along with some of his key teachings. Some of the things that happened in that story, however, are fundamentally shocking.
He could have come to earth as Superman, but he didn’t. He came as a helpless little baby. He chose to be born poor – not the first choice of most of us. He worked his way up in the world by his words, backed up by his works – both of which were extraordinary.
He chose peaceful rebellion instead of military force. He forgave his enemies. He called everyone his brother (or sister). And he worked miracles on occasion to demonstrate that he had the power to do otherwise but chose kindness and mercy rather than violence and force. So, they killed him.
But then he did the most spectacular deed of all: he rose from the dead!
Therein lie the lessons of the perfect man: powerful yet humble, peaceful yet killed by violence, defeated yet triumphant, defining victory as resurrection rather than domination. His message is an interpretation of human life at odds with everything the world teaches us about a successful life. It is a call to become a better person.
The transcendent lesson is pretty clear: We are all going to die. What will matter then is how we lived. How closely to that perfect human being have we been able to become?
Christmas celebrates the coming of God to earth, to us. It is a thrilling realization that this event happened, this event that brings hope and joy and forgiveness into our lives and gives us a vision of the mountain top from which we can launch our own resurrection. If God so loved us, then we are all worth loving, we all can love fearlessly, completely and happily.
We celebrate and give each other gifts as a recognition of God’s love for each of us, of your value as a person loved by God and loved by me – a value which was revealed once and for all on the day that God sent his Son to be born in a manger in Bethlehem some 2000 years ago.
So, yes, Christmas is still relevant.
MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL!
I just got back from Easter Vigil Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican with Pope Francis – because, why not?, when all the livestreaming world is your only option. (“Presided over by the Holy Father in a nearly empty basilica,” the Vatican English language translator, Sister Bernadette, said on the livefeed.) And as I have been for weeks – and years – I was moved by the Holy Father. His homily took us right to the heart of what we’re experiencing. The darkness. The fear. The hesitancy to sing Alleluia!, even though not only is that what is liturgically called for now, as Holy Saturday passes away – and this “Lentiest of Lents” as it has been called, but it is exactly what we need to say and hear and believe with all our hearts.
Or at least that’s where I am.
The pope talked about the women who loved Jesus so. And talked about the women who love Jesus so. As in today. As you may have picked up along the way, I’m friends with many women religious – sisters and nuns – and I happen to know that some of them are as without Mass as anyone right now in these quarantine times. And yet they pour themselves out in prayer still. They are on the phone with people suffering and then-some. (And, women, of course, are not alone in pouring themselves out, reaching out — take the Franciscan friars in the New York metro area who have a hotline for people in need of COVID-19 emergency spiritual care.) I see, too, many mothers post on social media what their families have been doing these past days, really kindling the fires of faith in their domestic churches. They are, as Pope Francis put it, sowing seeds of hope with gestures of love and care and prayer.
Hope is not optimism or empty words when we have nothing else to say or want desperately to make things better. The hope we’re talking about at Easter is a gift from Heaven we could not earn on our own, as Pope Francis put it. Jesus is the giver of this hope, of all hope. Easter is how we can be sure He says with credibility DO NOT BE AFRAID. We acquire, Pope Francis said, at Easter this fundamental right of hope. It’s planted in our hearts. Even from the grave, He brings life. Jesus emerged for us to begin a new story. He can remove the stones in front of our hearts, too. God is faithful. He entered into our pain, anguish, death. He wants His light to penetrate into the darkest corners. Darkness and death do not have the last word. Be strong. Have courage!
Courage, he continued, is not something you can give yourself. You receive it as a gift.
Receive it. Beg to receive it! (I added the second, maybe preaching to myself.)
Ask Jesus: Come to me amid my fears.
With you, Lord, we will be tested but not destroyed.
Nothing can rob us of the love God has for us.
The Lord goes before us, he said, walks ahead of us. Take some consolation in this. That Jesus goes first! Remember we have been lead and loved by God. We are born and reborn.
And we cannot keep this message of hope confined to our churches. It must be brought to everyone. [Conveniently we can’t be in our churches right now….] We who have touched the word of life must give it. Be messengers of life in a time of death! Sing the song of life, silence the cries of death!
He went on to insist on an end to war and abortion.
Fill empty hands.
His words brought me to two streets in Manhattan I haven’t been on for a while now. Margaret Sanger Place, where the flagship Planned Parenthood is and St Patrick’s Cathedral, where Will often sits at the corner, and Patrick right outside Saks Fifth Avenue across the street. Where are they? Do they have light, as they are light? They sure have shown me hope on days when I was plenty preoccupied and distracted with the world. (Patrick and I hugged just days before things started shutting down. Will such things ever happen again with the new protocols of life?)
This Coronavirus Easter is happening because death too often is our way. Even when we fight it, are we doing so with total light and love?
As he ended his homily at the Easter vigil tonight, Pope Francis said: Cling to Jesus like the women did — Jesus risen.
He offered a prayer: We turn our backs to death and turn to You, O Lord.
What does this mean in a time of Coronavirus? It is still Easter and we cannot go to church! The greatest prayer there is, the Mass, we can’t be physically present for.
It’s a matter for prayer. It’s going to look different for each one of us, according to our roles. We each have our roles, that’s for certain. And it’s a new story today of love renewed.
I once asked the late Cardinal George if the Church was in renewal. It was after the first round of scandals, and I was seeing young people on fire with the faith and giving him all kinds of other examples. He said with a fatherly wisdom that the Church is always in renewal. I see that more and more every day, but especially on account of this damned Coronavirus. It is from hell, and we cannot be paralyzed by it. We cannot stop loving. We cannot stop being and showing hope.
Think and pray about that as you launch into Easter Alleluias – out of tradition and obligation or from the heart. Say it. And pray that you can overwhelm all the world you inhabit with it in the most supernatural ways. That’s the message of Easter for us in a particular way this year: There’s darkness and sickness and death, but that’s not it! That’s never been it! But have we been living as if it is?
My Easter prayers for you, whomever you are and whatever you believe.
Peace. Courage. Hope!
Column: Is American society ready for the coronavirus pandemic?
A few months after September 11, 2001, David Brooks went back and looked at coverage of Pearl Harbor for an article in the Weekly Standard (“After Pearl Harbor,” December 10, 2001). What he saw intrigued him. A sense of unity and patriotism followed both surprise attacks. But media after Pearl Harbor had none of the sorrow, sensitivity, and angst that filled the news, with reason, after 9/11. Recognizing the inevitable costs of war, Americans on the home front at the outset of World War II were nonetheless eager to carry on as usual. They did not apologize or second-guess. They soldiered on. “When you step back and contemplate the range of post-Pearl Harbor media,” Brooks wrote, “you are struck by how extraordinarily proud of itself America then was.”
I revisited Brooks’s article this week while thinking about the differences between America during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919 and America during the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic today. Some of the distinctions are self-evident. America is far more wealthy, free, and technologically advanced than it was then. We enjoy the benefits of incorporating half the population into our economy and society, of ending de jure anti-black racism, of attracting the best and most ambitious talent from across the globe. We are no longer a rising power but a reluctant hegemon. A raw deal awaits any American who trades places with a doppelgänger from midway through Woodrow Wilson’s second term.
What changed is the American ethos. Expressive individualism replaced self-restraint. Narcissism and the therapeutic sensibility triumphed over the reticence and sense of tragedy that comes from living in places and times where there is no safety net and death is a constant presence. The culture of debunking, revisionism, and repudiation informs education, entertainment, art, and occasionally sport.
The size, scope, and ambition of the federal government and its managers is far greater now than it was then. So are the public’s expectations of government capabilities and performance. The institutions that stand between the individual and state have weakened where they have not crumbled. Family, community, religion, and voluntary association attenuate as modernity deprives them of their traditional functions.
The United States is beginning to shut down and self-isolate. Its G7 partners range from states of quarantine (Italy) to lockdown (France) to closed borders (Germany). Countries do not make such decisions on a lark. Nor is the reason for these extraordinary measures a secret. What terrifies the authorities is the prospect of surges in infection that would push public health systems beyond capacity and result in mass death. To prevent a medical catastrophe, the authorities guarantee an economic one.
The social capacity of America has received less attention. The worst-case scenarios anticipate an epidemic that lasts until a vaccine can be mass produced 18 months from now. Do we believe that American society could withstand until then the additional pressures that have been put on it over the past week?
The typical discussion of how coronavirus will change your life focuses on a specific practice or sector of industry. You hear a lot about telework, home schooling, vote by mail, or movies released on Video on Demand rather than in theaters. This piecemeal approach is understandable. Perhaps the problem is so complex, the potential extent of the disruption so massive, that the way to approach it is to study one aspect at a time.
But an extended lockdown will affect more than activities. It will warp institutions. There is a debate over how Congress might operate under social distancing. What about churches, synagogues, and mosques? Church attendance was falling before the virus. Even if the pandemic were to revive the religious impulse, would-be prodigal sons won’t be able to attend services. Church finances—nonprofits in general—will be harmed. In some cases, the damage will be irreparable.
The family enters this crisis beleaguered. My American Enterprise Institute colleague Nicholas Eberstadt writes in National Affairs of “the collapse of work for adult men, and the retreat from the world of work of growing numbers of men of conventional working age.” The recent improvements in the overall labor force participation rate will disappear if the economic fallout of the pandemic is large and enduring. Long-term joblessness and lack of prospects are barriers to marriage and to family formation. And the two-parent family is the seedbed for the character formation of young people. The social costs are enormous. And they are mounting.
Bill de Blasio’s indecision over whether to close New York City schools revealed that these institutions perform parental functions as much as educational ones. The school has become much more than a place of instruction. It is the site of feeding, caring, and supervision (if not disciplining) of children. Deprived of the shelter of the local school, children and young adults will have to look to parents for meals, instruction, and surveillance. Are parents ready to fulfill the responsibilities assumed by the state? What will happen when parents return to work or look for new employment? Will teenagers obey a guidance or curfew that is not enforced under penalty of law?
Large pools of nonworking or truant males are not associated with social or political stability. But they loom large in our future. The economic self-isolation of America can continue only for so long as American society permits. And if Americans, as they have tended to do, revolt against strictures from above, how will authorities respond? None of the answers are comforting. If the coronavirus overwhelms America’s social capacity, our government won’t be in a position to choose between an economic crisis or a pandemic. It will have both.
A first in human history: Anxious about their future on a hotter planet and angry at world leaders for failing to arrest the crisis, masses of young people poured into the streets on every continent on Friday for a day of global climate protests. Organizers estimated the turnout to be around four million in thousands of cities and towns worldwide. (Somini Sengupta, New York Times, September 20, 2019) (Below: Youth March for Climate Change (New York City, Sept.20, 2019)
What is the motivating force which could impel such an amazing reaction of youngsters all over the world (except China)? Clearly, the threat of extinction is taken so seriously by so many youths that they felt compelled to participate in this effort. What has convinced so many in so many places simultaneously?
Apparently, it is the vision of the planet earth being baked into destruction by the sun’s rays. This vision seems to have originated from the speculations of climate scientists as interpreted and simplified by activists. Cold, neutral, formulaic science has never elicited such emotional reactions. Those ideas had to be interpreted and simplified by propagandists. Eventually, the vision emerged with its dramatic impact and its ability to inspire visceral fear. It is this vision which has motivated a youthful passion which thirsts for a cause to believe in.
In that sense, climate change advocacy demonstrates many of the same characteristics as religion. It is an unquestioning belief in an unseen event; it inspires an ethic requiring sacrifice to achieve; and it thrives on communal events. Thus, it meets the traditional characteristics of religion: creed, code, and cult.
This phenomenon also raises the question, “Why are these folks (young and old) so open to a new religion?” Why are they not dedicated to the traditional religions of their elders? Or, more concretely, why has the Western world witnessed such a precipitous decline of traditional religious practice in recent generations?
The answer to these questions lies in the disconnect between the common life experience of our modern culture and the world view of traditional religions. As one way of approaching this topic, we might look at the differences in the epistemology (the way of understanding) between what religion teaches us compared to that of our everyday life.
Traditionally, religion proclaims that another invisible world exists in addition to this visible world. The invisible world is better than this world. This vision has brought comfort and peace to many millions of people through the ages. It has served as a reason for us to behave in certain ways which are conducive to the common good and it has given us hope to reach heaven and eternal peace when we die.
Common life experience in the 21st century exhibits a quite different vision. First of all, we live in a world of constant discovery. While many aspects of this world are invisible, such as thoughts and emotions and happiness, it is also true that our science is based on the presumption that all reality is ultimately physical, even if it is too small to be seen (atoms), too large to be understood (the universe), or discoverable only through its effect on things that can be measured (neutrons). As a culture, we have come to believe that all reality is knowable, even if we don’t yet know it. We keep learning new things all the time, only to discover more things we don’t know. Nevertheless, the thrill of learning is one of our cultural goals.
It is the task of the theologians to conceptualize and explain the spiritual dimensions of our human experience and the connections between our life experience and our traditional beliefs. It appears that today’s theologians are asleep at the switch. Our culture cries out for an ethic which takes the world we live in much more seriously than does traditional religion. To achieve that ethic, a new vision must be developed – one which understands the beauty of the universe, the world we live in, the body we have been given, and the ways in which this visible world must be treated in order for us to achieve happiness and satisfaction in our interactions with this world, our community and ourselves.
In such a vision, we see technology as an extension of our body – machines to take us farther and faster than our legs could carry us, to make our minds more agile, our imaginations more original, our views more expansive. We see our love extended to other races and places beyond our natural limits, our talents challenged by new plateaus, and our world enriched by the newness of our life on earth. This is a vision which will allow us to seek the transcendent meaning of life as the sum of all the good and evil we can see with our sharpened insights and to find our personal path to virtue, happiness and holiness.
As our lives are enriched by the colors and textures of this world which God has provided for us, we are also confronted with new responsibilities and obligations. which have been ignored in the past, to maintain that world. Some examples: while the absolute need for cheap and plentiful energy is granted, how do we justify digging coal at the risk of black lung disease for the miners? How do we justify burying nuclear waste which will take 3000 years to dissipate? How do we preserve our planet’s suitability for human life? How do we balance the harm of nuclear weapons against the cost in human life? What do we owe to trees and wildlife? And, what are the ethical norms by which we are to measure such answers?
Religion, like life itself, must evolve to meet the very real spiritual needs of real people. If organized religions fail in this fundamental obligation, people will substitute whatever they can find in order to satisfy the primal need we all share for spiritual nourishment – even if it is as flimsy as climate change.
“The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root, it is a test of moral will and faith.”
by Scott L. Vanatter
President Reagan’s address March 8, 1983 at the Annual Convention of the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Florida has become known as the “Evil Empire” speech. The speech also included many other insights into who Reagan was, and into his considered wisdom on things of this world, and of the world to come.
Apropos to this year’s campaign, Reagan declared this truism, “If history teaches anything, it teaches that simple-minded appeasement or wishful thinking about our adversaries is folly.” Continue reading