Faith-based organizations looking at impact of executive orders

Lisa Johnston |
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Executive orders signed by President Barack Obama could have a profound impact on the work of Catholic Charities of St. Louis and other faith-based organizations that receive federal funding.

The orders prohibit discrimination of employees on the basis of sex, which includes gender identity, transgender status and sex stereotypes. The other calls for a distinct separation between "explicit religious activity" and the delivery of services.

"Catholic Charities, which started over 100 years ago, and other faith-based organizations have been pioneers in social services in this country," Catholic Charities' president Theresa Ruzicka said. "And now, to some extent, we are being singled out. Yet, we are still committed to the work that we do."

Government contracts and grants comprise about 40 percent of Catholic Charities' $87 million budget. Catholic Charities has more than 1,500 employees

Catholic Charities has been reviewing federal contracts in light of the new orders, and, if needed, will seek removal of provisions that aren't in accordance with the tenets of the Catholic faith and the way in which Catholic Charities operates. If provisions cannot be made, Ruzicka said, "then we have to ask ourselves, do we seek another funding source, or do we continue to offer that service?"

Ruzicka is providing feedback to Catholic Charities USA about how the orders could potentially have an effect at the local level.

According to Brian Corbin, executive vice president of membership services, Catholic Charities USA serves as a "translation service," helping local agencies understand federal regulations and laws. Catholic Charities USA also has been providing feedback to policymakers to bring up unintended consequences of these orders.

"We have a great ability to impact laws and regulations, showing policymakers, here's a regulation in effect and this is what it's really doing at the ground level," Corbin said. "You may not have intended this, and it's being done with a best faith effort, but there are some unintended consequences in implementation."

In August, Archbishop Robert Carlson sent a memo to priests, deacons and agency directors requesting that any archdiocesan agency working with federal contracts in excess of $10,000 should be reviewed by the archdiocese's general counsel.

He wrote that some of the contracts "require implementation of certain employment policies in matters which conflict with Catholic teaching. I am morally obliged to ensure that the Archdiocese and its integrated auxiliaries are at all times operating in compliance with the teachings of the Catholic Church and ecclesial authority."

The U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Federal Contract Compliance's final ruling on sex non-discrimination went into effect in August. Ruzicka noted Catholic Charities has policies that meet federal requirements, such as not asking about an employee's sexual orientation.

The organization also participates in the Archdiocese of St. Louis' employment benefits program, which doesn't include benefits for same-sex couples or coverage for sex change operations. The executive order specifically states "explicit, categorical exclusion of coverage for all care related to gender dysphoria or gender transition is facially discriminatory."

"That poses a predicament for us," Ruzicka said. "We are a faith-based organization, and our work has a foundation in Church teaching."

Catholic Charities' employee handbook states that employees, regardless of personal religious affiliation, are "expected to act in ways that represent support of Catholic Charities values." Catholic Charities' board members also are asked to sign a Catholic identity statement and support the "basic truths and principles of the Catholic Church."

Under the second executive order, nine federal agencies published changes to rules for faith-based and community organizations regarding participation in religious activity. The changes, which went into effect in May, demand a clear separation in time and space between religious activity and the delivery of services. The rules now use the term "explicit religious activities," which includes any overt religious content such as worship, religious instruction or proselytizing.

Catholic Charities doesn't proselytize clients, Ruzicka noted. Its federated agencies however, provide voluntary opportunities for prayer and Mass. It's unclear how the ruling would affect offering voluntary prayer with clients of different faith or no faith backgrounds. But Catholic clients who wish to receive the sacraments, such as the Eucharist, confession or anointing of the sick, will continue to have that opportunity.

"Our work has a foundation in Church teaching," she said. "We serve everyone — it's not about creed but about need. They should know that we're Catholic not only by the name on our building, but when they walk in and see religious symbols, such as the crucifix. Hopefully they will see that we operate in a different way than other organizations. That's how they know we're Catholic." 

>> President Barack Obama's Executive Orders

11246: Prohibits sex discrimination against employees in workplaces that receive federal contracts or grants. This includes discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions; gender identity; transgender status; or sex stereotypes.

13559: Establishes guidelines regarding "explicitly religious activity" involving faith-based and other community organizations that receive federal contracts or grants. The guidelines state that there must be a separation in time and location of the delivery of services and any religious activity. 

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