Friday, December 20, 2013

The First Amendment, Catholic Organizations, Same Sex Marriage, and Women's Health

Two recent news stories that could affect Catholic organizations and their freedom to ensure the practice of and adherence to Catholic teaching are causing a buzz on the internet and within the walls of many Catholic organizations.

First is news from Pennsylvania that a state legislator has introduced a bill that would prohibit employers from requiring employees to abide by religious doctrine as a condition of employment. This legislative bill was filed after a non-diocesan Catholic school fired one of its teacher employees who lives in New Jersey. Through a change in that state's law, the employee automatically entered into a civil "marriage" with his same-sex partner. The law changed earlier this year when a court in New Jersey mandated the redefinition of civil marriage to recognize same-sex couples. This meant that the civil union that the school employee and his same-sex partner had entered into in 2008 became recognized as a "marriage" under New Jersey law.

When the school learned of this turn of events, the principal said he had no choice but to fire the teacher because his employment contract said he must abide by Catholic doctrine. The employee asserts that his sexuality was known, that he has been with his partner for many years and that they have frequented school events together. In his mind their marriage did not change anything. The pending legislation is an attempt to prevent religious employers from requiring employees to abide by religious doctrine that is deemed to conflict with civil rights of individuals. In themean time, it is viewed as oppressive and violative of religious freedom by many, both inside and outside of Pennsylvania  and New Jersey.

The second story is from the LA Times and is entitled, "Are Catholic hospitals bad for women's health? ACLU says yes." This article mentions an ACLU report that notes the growth in the number of Catholic hospitals in the ten years from 2001 to 2011. See chart below.

Number and percentage of total acute-care hospitals by hospital type, 2001 and 2011
Original posted on ACLUwebsite

The LA Times article insists that the health of women is endangered when they go to Catholic hospitals because doctors and other staff are hampered by having to abide by Catholic doctrine rather than being concerned about the patient and her health. The article follows on the heels of a lawsuit that was filed recently by the ACLU on behalf of Tamesha Means against the USCCB. The complaint essentially alleges that the Bishops' Conference owes Means compensation because their Church laws prevented Means from getting proper care at a Catholic hospital when she sought care there during atroubled pregnancy. According to the LA Times article:
Everyone knows that Catholic hospitals don’t perform elective abortions.  
Incomprehensibly, Catholic hospitals even fall afoul of the church if they perform an abortion to save a mother’s life. 
But are they negligent if they fail to merely inform a pregnant woman that abortion is the safest option when her health is in danger and her fetus faces certain death? And that if she wants an abortion, she should seek help elsewhere? 
That’s the crux of the issue in a negligence lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of Tamesha Means, a Michigan woman whose local hospital treated her with Tylenol and sent her home twice after her water broke 18 weeks into her pregnancy. The suit alleges that the hospital, the only one within 30 miles of Means' home, did not tell her that her fetus was doomed, nor that inducing labor and terminating the pregnancy was the only way to reduce the risk of a dangerous infection. 
But there is a twist in this case. 
Instead of filing suit against Mercy Health Partners, the Muskegon, Mich., hospital where the incident took place, the ACLU took the unusual step of suing the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which sets the rules for Catholic hospitals on many aspects of care, including abortion.
Many will recall the controversial news story from Arizona in 2010 when a sister at a Catholic hospital was told by the bishop that she was automatically excommunicated due to her role in deciding that an abortion was necessary for a patient at the hospital. A few months later, the bishop stripped the hospital of its Catholic identity for its defense of the decisions made and the procedures used on the patient. The actions of the bishop remain a controversial topic in many Church circles.

Whether the actions of the Arizona bishop and the hospital staff in Michigan were right or wrong, these events and other high profile Catholic hospital cases will undoubtedly be a part of the big picture that the ACLU attempts to paint of Catholic doctrine and social teaching when and if its case against the USCCB moves forward. Indeed, whether the principal of the Catholic school in Pennsylvania acted appropriately and legally may depend on the party with whom you sympathize.

The question now becomes: Are the First Amendment and women's healthcare services on an unavoidable collision course? And what of the First Amendment versus the rights of gay people? If a collision is inevitable in these cases, will there be any survivors?

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