There’s good news in the air! Catholic students in the Diocese of Palm Beach will return to their schools on August 24th, a week earlier than their counterparts in the Palm Beach County Public Schools District. Hip, hip, hooray!! As a prelude to this, permit me to present you with a condensed version of a presentation given by Dr. Patrick J. Reilly, president of The Cardinal Newman Society, which promotes and defends faithful Catholic education.
Across the country this month, many Americans celebrated “wins” for Catholic schools and religious freedom at the Supreme Court—and rightly so. But it would be a mistake to believe that Catholic education is secure without substantial fortification. In fact, the Catholic identity of our schools and colleges may be in far greater danger than it was before the summer began. There is much that Catholic educators can do to improve their prospects for the future, but it will require strong faith and fortitude.
This Court session proved that the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment still offer some cover for faithful education. But, [because of] the Supreme Court’s Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia ruling issued in June—finding that employers may not discriminate based on homosexual or transgender status or behavior—Catholic educators must be prepared for the impact of secular and ideological devastation in the surrounding culture. The pressure on Catholic schools and colleges to compromise the Faith will be intense. Moreover, any legal protection for Catholic education provided by this Court must be considered within the broader context of the Bostock ruling and how it impacts state laws, accreditation and membership in athletic associations. Some attorneys express optimism that Catholic schools and colleges will win even greater protections under federal law following Bostock. It’s just as likely that our refuge, such as it is, may be temporary.
Regardless, Catholics must use every opportunity we still have to prepare the next generation for a renewal of fidelity and of American culture. And to do that, we must provide faithful Catholic education that is fully committed to the needs of Catholic families. We must give young Catholics the spiritual and intellectual formation they truly deserve, instead of courting enrollment by families whose interest in Catholic education is only to gain advantages in college and career. It would be better to have fewer schools and colleges devoted to truly Catholic education, rather than devote scarce resources to a mostly secular education that can be provided by other private, public, and charter schools.
The bottom line is that there’s no escaping the growing antagonism toward any institution that preserves a Christian understanding of the human person, sexuality, and marriage. Our legal protections are limited, and we may not have many years before Catholic schools and colleges lose the limited protections they now have. The renewal of faithful Catholic education has never been more urgent, and it would be tragic if educators choose instead to compromise away what remains of Catholic schools and colleges.
Last month’s Bostock ruling expanded the scope of sex discrimination to include adverse decisions concerning transgender and homosexual behavior. If applied to Catholic education, this would prevent schools and colleges from upholding moral standards for teachers and other employees. All of this is, of course, simply unacceptable. Even more, it’s impossible, because the mission of Catholic education begins with fidelity to the Catholic faith. All of its teaching, activities and policies must be faithful to Catholic teaching. Its employees must be witnesses to the faith and moral behavior. An authentic Catholic school or college can’t conform to Bostock. There is no compromise with Bostock that does not contradict the very purpose of a Catholic school or college to teach truth and form saints.
The big question to be litigated, then, is whether Catholic education is protected by the religious exemptions—and whether Congress allows those exemptions to survive. Past interpretations of religious exemption have been quite narrow, but the opinions in Bostock suggest that a wider interpretation might be possible. We’ll have to fight for it. The even bigger question is whether Catholic educators will vigorously assert their rights to religious freedom or instead yield to gender ideology, prioritizing public affection over their fidelity to Catholic teaching. Sadly, as we have seen time and again, some will try to compromise. The best thing that Catholic educators can do immediately is to batten down their Catholic identity as tightly as possible. This provides the best defense under the First Amendment, religious exemptions, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Most important, it’s the right thing to do.
The ministerial exception does not offer the total protection for Catholic education that is often implied by commentators. If just one employee does not qualify for the ministerial exception—a maintenance worker or clerical assistant, perhaps—then the school could be vulnerable to lawsuits unless it qualifies for religious exemption from Title VII. Therefore, employee and student policies must be written in light of Bostock, regardless of the ministerial exception.
This does not mean that schools and colleges should conform to gender ideology and thus betray the mission of Catholic education. It means that they should work on strengthening Catholic identity and fortifying legal defenses with policies that are clearly tied to their mission. They
should be prepared to fight Bostock in court, if necessary.
Meanwhile, the Court’s [recent] Espinoza ruling prevents states from excluding Catholic schools and colleges from public benefits that are available to private education. This has been celebrated as an opportunity for school choice programs and taxpayer funding for Catholic education….but a sudden flood of money with strings attached can be highly dangerous to religious institutions.
Given the direction of nondiscrimination law under Bostock, we can expect growing conflicts with Catholic teaching and religious freedom in both federal and state law. Educators must place priority on protecting Catholic education against entanglements that compromise the mission of Catholic education. This could require great sacrifice. The Espinoza ruling is a hollow victory if families are unable to choose faithful schools.
If Catholic school and college leaders firmly stand their ground, strengthen internal policies to forthrightly uphold Catholic beliefs, and defend their religious freedom in court when necessary, there is hope they can hold on within the new Bostock environment. But, compromising Catholic education to conform to the Court’s false and immoral interpretation of the law will only invite scandal and demise. Too many Catholic schools and colleges have weakened their Catholic identity over the past few decades, with disastrous results. Now, without a consistent Catholic identity across all policies and practices, why would legal courts treat them differently than their secular counterparts?
Catholic families don’t need more watered-down Catholic education. They need the opposite. Young Catholics deserve an authentic Catholic education. They need to be formed in faith and reason. It would be a tragedy if Catholic schools and colleges cowered under Bostock and compromised their religious mission. Instead, more than ever we need graduates of faithful Catholic[s] who are prepared to transform a confused and wayward culture. This will require Catholic educators who are prepared to defend their students’ right to a Catholic formation—and then do it well.