St. Louis’s Unholy War on Religious Liberty

 
 

An ordinance passed in St. Louis, Missouri, prohibits discrimination in housing or employment on the basis of “reproductive health decisions.” Promoted as an anti-discrimination measure, the law’s actual purpose is to destroy the self-government of religious and pro-life organizations.

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Can Christian churches and organizations require employees, from teachers to ministers, to uphold Christian teaching in word and deed? Not in St. Louis, Missouri, where earlier this year the abortion lobby muscled through a city ordinance that directly attacks the freedoms of religion, speech, and association. Although it was promoted as an anti-discrimination measure, the actual purpose of the law is to destroy the self-government of religious and pro-life organizations.

The law prohibits discrimination in housing or employment related to “reproductive health decisions,” with no ministerial exemption for religious institutions and churches. Therefore, under this law, Catholic leaders in St. Louis can be fined and imprisoned for punishing a rogue priest who got a woman pregnant and then paid for her to get an abortion. The administrators of a private Christian school can be fined and imprisoned for disciplining a teacher who promoted abortion to students. The elders of a Baptist church can be fined and imprisoned for firing a minister who, in order to preserve his image as the father of a perfect family, pressured his unmarried teenaged daughter to get an abortion. The leaders of pro-life groups can be fined and imprisoned for refusing to hire pro-abortion activists, or for even suggesting a preference for pro-life employees.

Megan Green, the original sponsor of the ordinance, has confirmed these consequences, declaring that “We’re not saying the Archdiocese and the others can’t have their views. . . . We’re saying they can’t impose them on others in housing or employment.” This ordinance is intended to punish Christian ministries and organizations that require employees to adhere to Christian standards of behavior. This is further confirmed by the absence of any actual injustices for the law to remedy. NARAL, which pushed the bill, told the Huffington Post that “before the ordinance passed last winter, NARAL had not actually heard of any specific cases in which women were discriminated against because of their reproductive history.” Yet St. Louis nonetheless passed the bill as an “emergency” measure so that it could go into immediate effect.

If the law’s supporters knew of genuine injustice regarding “reproductive health decisions,” they could have crafted a specific legal remedy that respected the rights to freedom of religion, speech, and association. Instead, and despite the objections of religious leaders, they rammed through a broad bill that violates numerous constitutional rights and several state laws. This law has nothing to do with combatting actual unjust discrimination; that is just a cover for attacks on the constitutional rights of Christians and other abortion opponents.

This law is like requiring the DNC to retain a staffer who became a die-hard Trump supporter or forcing PETA to keep an employee who comes to work wearing a fur coat and eating a chicken sandwich. Actually, it's worse, because it violates even more constitutional rights. Churches and religious institutions that can’t enforce standards of belief and behavior, even for ministers, do not have religious liberty. The constitutional guarantee of the free exercise of religion is void unless religious communities can govern their internal affairs in accord with their beliefs, especially as regards their leaders and ministers. The Supreme Court unanimously affirmed this in the 2012 Hosanna-Tabor decision, writing:

Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so . . . interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs. By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments.

But this is precisely what the St. Louis ordinance does, in violation of the Supreme Court’s ruling that “the authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful is the church’s alone.”

In response to this ordinance, the Missouri legislature has produced a bill that provides some clear protections for pro-life groups (especially those providing support for alternatives to abortion) but otherwise leaves the St. Louis ordinance intact. Meanwhile, the Thomas More Society is representing several plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the ordinance in federal court. The city has declared its intent to defend the ordinance, but it has not yet addressed the legal issues at stake beyond bare denials of wrongdoing. Still, even though St. Louis will almost certainly lose in court eventually, the politicians behind this bill will be unaffected. They won’t personally be on the hook for damages and attorney fees, and they’re fulfilling their ideological imperative to attack religious liberty.

The St. Louis law is one manifestation of a broader effort to pervert the purpose of anti-discrimination law, changing it from a tool used to protect minority groups from material harm (i.e., being locked out of essential goods and services) into a weapon used to destroy religious liberty. David French of National Review has noted that proponents of a similar measure in California are open about their desire to attack Christian organizations. While the supporters of the St. Louis law declined to provide actual examples of the behavior they wanted to prohibit, the supporters of the California bill have specifically targeted “Christian organizations applying orthodox Christian theology to employees who voluntarily work at the institution.”

There is a pattern to these assaults on the freedom of individuals and groups to live authentically in accordance with their beliefs. The first step is to present a minor or even hypothetical problem as one of discrimination. The second is to insist on combatting this “discrimination” by using the massive government power established to break segregation, regardless of infringements on the freedoms of religion, speech and association. The third step is to use the borrowed moral authority of the civil rights movement to accuse any nonconformists of being bigots seeking a “license to discriminate,” and to compare them to segregationists. Finally, objections to this unnecessary expansion of anti-discrimination law are dismissed by appeal to a slippery slope, at the bottom of which is a return to segregation.

This process collapses all sense of proportion and makes anti-discrimination law a weapon used to suppress dissent rather than a measured remedy for actual injustice. Thus, it justifies punishing a dissident baker who doesn’t want to create custom cakes for same-sex weddings, even though he harms no one, let alone on a scale comparable to the harms Jim Crow laws inflicted on black Americans. Similarly, it eagerly seeks to punish Christian schools that require teachers to abide by traditional Christian standards of sexual conduct, even though employment at such schools is entirely voluntary. The mindset is that of an inquisitor or heretic hunter who seeks to punish individuals and institutions that dissent from government orthodoxy. It sees in their claims of authenticity and conscience only shields for bigotry, and it rejects the idea that error has any rights.

Thus, they justify increased government power by looking at freedom and imagining how it might be abused, rather than justifying liberty by looking at how state power will be abused. There is continual confirmation of Rod Dreher’s Law of Merited Impossibility: “It will never happen, and when it does, you bigots will deserve it.” And constitutional rights are shredded in the process.

St. Louis has literally passed a law requiring the city government to regulate the hiring and firing of ministers working for religious institutions, and pro-abortion activists are trying to pass similar laws across the nation while boasting about their plans to target religious dissenters. In St. Louis and elsewhere, anti-discrimination law is being hijacked to persecute religious nonconformists, rather than protecting their rights to authentically live by their faith.

Nathanael Blake has a PhD in political theory. He lives in Missouri.

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