Friday, June 22, 2012


Another case of more heat than light. Apparently a lesbian couple has sued a self-insuring Catholic hospital where one of them works for discrimination for not extending benefits to the partner, now a legal "spouse," under the assumption that the Federal Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional (or hoping to have it ruled such.)

I don't want to beat this issue to death, as I've done a few posts on it lately. I am ambivalent about the labeling question, and don't want to get into that discussion again so soon. I do support civil recognition of partnership relationships (in themselves good) of all types, but I'm also ambivalent about the government regulating how private employers deal with their employees in general (especially when it's a religious employer, as a Catholic hospital most certainly is.)

I really am ambivalent about government regulations like that. For example, if a privately owned restaurant doesn't want to serve a certain race, I'm not going to say that must be illegal. But then the restaurant shouldn't be surprised when a bunch of people even from other races (including me) choose to boycott that restaurant! At the same time, I don't really care if the government does make it illegal (in fact, I'm mildly supportive of such laws); I'm not some sort of libertarian purist who thinks the Civil Rights Act was bad. Whatever works, I say. Still, no one has a right to eat at a certain restaurant, but no one has a right to operate a restaurant either, nor to expect customers, so it's hard for me to see either case as about "rights."

So I guess my view of these things is something along the lines of the Catholic view of grace. When we're talking about things that nobody has a right to in the first place (and I don't think anyone has a strict right to any sorts of benefits from their employer unless their is a contract in place)...I don't think claims of discrimination make any sense. God makes it to rain on some fields and not on others, and if certain privileges (not rights) are available to some people, other people shouldn't complain (like the workers in the vineyard.) Likewise, if the State chooses to protect some privileges and not others, or to only prosecute certain criminals, etc...the motives may be wrong, but there is not necessarily any right to have equal access to what no one had a right to in the first place!

So when it comes to the lawsuit itself, I suppose my feelings are on the side of the Catholic hospital and the federal law. As a religious employer, especially, they should be able to discriminate however they want. And same thing with the federal government in this case. If it wants to extend privileges (not rights, mind you) to only one group, it really doesn't matter if the boundaries of that group are totally arbitrary (or even based on a biased criterion). However, that's only the legal question. When it comes to my practical sympathies, they are more towards the side of saying that arbitrary exclusion or irrational distinctions are bad. In other words: I don't necessarily think they violate justice, but they most certainly violate charity.

Anyway, the main thing I wanted to point out here in this vein was the absurdity of this statement:

The suit illustrates what Roman Catholic bishops warned would happen last year when the Obama administration, calling the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, said it would no longer defend it in court. Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York, wrote to President Obama to contend that steps toward legalizing gay marriage could push Catholic social service organizations to shut down, rather than violate their moral beliefs.
Now, maybe I'm just dense, but I'm really not sure what Catholic belief would be violated here. If they were suing to force us to pay for her abortion, that would be one thing. But I hardly think it can be called a Catholic belief that we're not allowed to extend certain financial benefits to certain people. I mean, I can't find anything objectively wrong here. Rather, the complaint seems to be something along the lines of being forced to "recognize" a lesbian marriage. But that isn't really true except as a sort of legal construct that we could easily escape by simply taking all notion of "spouses" out of the healthcare plan and simply allowing each member to appoint one "significant other" (no questions asked about the specific nature or content of that relationship) to share the benefits.

So, while I don't think there is necessarily an obligation in justice to extend such benefits to anyone, nor that it is a violation of justice to exclude certain people even arbitrarily...I do believe the exclusions as the exist are pretty arbitrary, are more about semantic obfuscation (and possibly saving money, ala Steubenville's inconsistent health plan decision), and I think it's incredibly disingenuous to act as if it is "against our teachings" to give certain people shared insurance benefits, tax breaks, hospital visitation rights, etc, as if those things are some how intrinsically linked to the immoral sex acts that may or may not be taking place between the pair in question. 

It's not as if they're being asked to directly facilitate anything objectively immoral here. There is nothing in itself controversial about giving someone insurance or whatever. They object to the official "reason," but the official "reason" is nothing more than a legal fiction or construct. Like I said, the Church could say that our reason for extending it is not because they recognize a "marriage," but because we extend benefits to all significant others, or to all civil partners under the law (even if disagreeing with how the law labels it and how the culture associates that civil arrangement with immorality.) 

So the disagreeing with the proposed reason itself does not seem a sufficient cause to refrain from a morally neutral act (since, really, we determine how we construct the motive). A boss sleeping with an employee may present some serious conflict of interest problems, but it is not, in itself, prostitution just because they're having sex and money is being exchanged between the two, as long as the two transactions are intentionally unrelated. There are plenty of ways to extend benefits to partners without construing this as a recognition or approval of or enabling of anything immoral. 

But this notion only makes sense to people who understand that such relationships are abstractable from any immorality they might contain and, so abstracted, are valuable in many ways in themselves. Ways which could form the basis of a totally non-controversial concession of benefits. Of course, most conservative Catholics these days can't make that abstraction, identify sin with relationship itself as if they were totally equivalent, and so don't understand this logic. It's sad.

No comments: