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At CNN’s town hall with Democratic presidential candidates earlier this month, Don Lemon asked whether religious institutions should lose their tax-exempt status if they oppose same-sex marriage. Beto O’Rourke said yes. Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren have said no. Social conservatives, religious-freedom advocates, and free-speech advocates object to O’Rourke’s answer, but they’ve heard it before, from others, and are likely to hear it more often as public opinion settles on the assumption that same-sex marriage and interracial marriage are analogous.
During oral arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), Justice Samuel Alito noted Bob Jones University v. United States (1983). The university excluded blacks from attending until 1971, when it decided to admit them but only if they were married. In 1975, it reinforced its ban on interracial marriage and dating. Meanwhile, the IRS had announced, in 1970, that it would no longer grant tax-exempt status to private schools that practiced racial discrimination. BJU maintained that it was entitled to a religious exemption from the new rules, arguing that its policies were based on its interpretation of scripture. The Supreme Court ruled that the IRS was correct to revoke BJU’s tax-exempt status and that the government’s interest in eradicating racial discrimination outweighed the burden that the removal of the tax benefit placed on the ability of the school to exercise its religious beliefs.
Note that Bob Jones University lost its tax exemption for its policies, not its doctrine. Eugene Volokh and others explain that the free-speech clause of the First Amendment protects the right to teach against same-sex marriage but that schools can still be found to violate anti-discrimination laws if their admissions and hiring policies reflect that teaching. Last week the Supreme Court heard two cases in which the plaintiffs say that they were fired for being gay. They argue that the term “sex” in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“it shall be unlawful“ for an employer to discriminate against “any individual because of his race, color, religion, sex, or national origin”) refers to a person’s sexual orientation as well as to his or her biological sex.
In recent years, in some high-profile cases, Catholic schools have fired teachers for marrying a person of the same sex. The headlines typically feature the phrase “fires gay teacher” (or some variation thereof), leading readers to assume that in the eyes of the Church the teacher’s offense is his or her sexual orientation. It’s not. The following explanation will cause some eyes to roll and heads to shake. Here I’ll refrain from trying (or from trying very hard) to persuade you of the merits of Catholic sexual morality, and just focus on laying out briefly what it is. Most traditional churches and Christian denominations agree with it in spirit if not in every detail.
“Chastity” is one of those words, like “decade” and “assumption” and “extraordinary,” that in Catholic usage sometimes means something different from what it means in common parlance. The Church requires its members to be chaste according to their state in life. Chastity in the everyday sense, of abstention from sexual activity, is the default setting for Catholics unless they marry. If they do, they are chaste insofar as they abstain from sex with anyone except their spouse, who is necessarily of the opposite sex, given the Church’s premise that the telos of sexual union is procreation. Naturally, artificial contraception is forbidden. Compared with the norms of the modern secular West, all that sounds exacting and strict, but approximations of it are mainstream in other organized religions. It’s remarkably close, for example, to what the Dalai Lama has described as the sexual morality that Buddhists should observe.
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