Each week a question is posed at The Washington Post’s On Faith blog moderated by Sally Quinn and Jon Meacham concerning critical religious issues. Last week the question was particularly compelling and important as it asks this:

In response to the new gay marriage law in Washington, Catholic Charities closed its adoption and foster care programs and cut spousal benefits to future employees — to avoid providing services to homosexual couples. If a church or other religious charity receives government funding, should it follow all government rules, including those against discrimination based on sexual orientation? Or should government exempt such organizations from requirements that violate particular religious beliefs?

Among respondents was Michael Otterson, head of worldwide public affairs for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who answered the question and then expanded it to explore a deeper issue:

My own Church doesn’t ask for, or accept, government funding, so I’m deferring to other churches to defend that ground.

But let’s drill down into the question more deeply.

There is a long history in the law of exempting religious organizations from burdensome regulations that otherwise govern commercial enterprises. Courts have long recognized that government must tread very lightly before imposing regulations on religious organizations.

In the seminal case of Amos v. Corporation of the Presiding Bishop (1987), the United States Supreme Court unanimously held that it was constitutional for Congress to exempt religious organizations (in this case The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) from anti-discrimination laws even in activities that do not appear to be at the heart of their religious doctrine and beliefs.

One of the most respected justices of our time, William Brennan, wrote a thoughtful concurring opinion that acknowledged the burden such exemptions can impose on excluded individuals. Nevertheless, Justice Brennan strongly affirmed the constitutionally protected autonomy of faith communities to select their own leaders, define their own doctrines, resolve their own disputes, and run their own institutions – even in areas that many would see as secular. Failure to respect that autonomy, he reasoned, would alter the very process by which a faith community defines itself.

That, in turn, would alter the process by which individuals of faith also define themselves.

As a matter of principle, the use of anti-discrimination laws to force religious organizations to accept persons or adopt practices in violation of their religious beliefs, or alter their ways of life, service, worship or practices, is myopic. Such measures present a fundamental threat to religious liberty and the rights of conscience. As Justice Brennan noted, if faith communities are to further their religious missions and ultimately serve the ends of individual religious freedom, government must respect their right of self-determination.

If we take freedom of religion seriously, then we must recognize that the state should never compel religious institutions to conform to a single model. Such forced conformance would destroy the very religious pluralism that is protected as the First Freedom in our Bill of Rights.


Michael Otterson is a regular contributor to the On Faith blog of the Washington Post