Catholic Relief Services, and Catholic Institutions Nationwide, Wrestle With the Estridge Dilemma

As CRS continues to weigh its response to the disclosure of a vice president’s same-sex ‘marriage,’ analysts warn that protecting Catholic identity will be difficult in contemporary America’s changing legal and political landscape.

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WASHINGTON — Call it the “Estridge Dilemma”: In the era of legalized same-sex civil “marriages,” what course of action should U.S. Catholic institutions chart when an employee publicly contradicts Church teaching by being a party to such a union?

Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ Baltimore-based foreign-aid charity, has been struggling with this question since the mid-April disclosure that a CRS vice president, Rick Estridge, is civilly married to a same-sex partner.

Now, with the U.S. Supreme Court potentially poised to make “gay marriage” a constitutional right nationwide, and with a report circulating this week that the Obama administration already has decided to make acceptance of LBGT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered) job applicants a condition for all federal grants made to faith-based groups, the “Estridge Dilemma” soon could be a problem that virtually every Catholic institution will face as they seek to live out their mission while keeping their religious identity intact.

“If the Supreme Court finds for same-sex marriage (as many expect it to do this month), it will have made a error similar to its Roe v. Wade decision,” Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami told the Register June 2 via email.

“The Church and other people of goodwill continue to work for an override of Roe v. Wade — and if same-sex marriage becomes the law of the land, we will likewise seek to witness to the truth; and in doing so, hope to change hearts and minds so that we can renew the culture,” added the archbishop, who earlier this year reaffirmed that all employees of archdiocesan institutions must continue to conform with Church teaching regarding marriage, following a judicial order that redefined marriage in Florida to include same-sex couples.

Archbishop Wenski did not reference CRS in his comments to the Register about the broader significance of the issue and about how his archdiocese is responding to the state of Florida’s redefinition of marriage.

But for the last six weeks, CRS has been engaged in internal discussions about how to respond to the situation of Estridge, its vice president of overseas finance, who is in a same-sex “marriage” courtesy of a 2013 ceremony in Maryland, which legalized such unions at the start of that year. The Lepanto Institute broke the story and reported that Estridge publicly championed same-sex “marriage” on his Facebook page, which was subsequently disabled.

On April 20, a CRS official confirmed to Catholic News Agency that the information about Estridge’s same-sex union was accurate, adding, “At this point, we are in deliberations on this matter.”


CRS President Carolyn Woo

Those internal deliberations clearly have not been simple to resolve. In a May 22 response to the Register’s request for comment, Paul Eagle, the director of communications for Catholic Relief Services, said: “With the new Maryland laws, our board is looking closely at our policies to make sure we are adhering to Catholic teachings, while treating every employee with dignity and respect. This includes consulting with moral theologians and exploring the implications of Maryland laws.”

Neither CRS’ executive leadership nor its board of directors, chaired by Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City, have issued any public statements regarding specific actions that might occur. But Carolyn Woo, the president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, said in a May 18 interview with Aleteia that CRS was “working through” the question of whether employing a senior executive in a same-sex civil “marriage” constitutes a violation of Church teaching.

Woo noted that while the Church is “very clear” that marriage occurs between a man and a woman, it’s not necessarily a settled question whether this translates into “a blanket No” from the Church in response to the question of whether employees of Catholic institutions can be in a same-sex civil marriage.

“While the teaching is clear, as it translates into practice, there has not been defined a common approach for dealing with employment, particularly when the position is non-ministerial, when the person is not a Catholic, when the agency is not a school,” Woo said. “So we’re in that area when there have been various steps forward, but not a clear path.”

Added Woo, “Civil marriage is protected by the state of Maryland and 36 other states, as well as D.C., so we’re also dealing with a new intersection between, in this case, state law and Church teaching where the practice is being defined.”


Financial Penalties

Woo did not amplify about the nature of this “new intersection” in her Aleteia interview, but one major possible ramification for Catholic hospitals, schools and social-service agencies that refuse to recognize same-sex “marriage” is the loss of government contracts.

Organizations like Catholic Relief Services, which received slightly more than $226 million in government funding in 2014, could find themselves vulnerable to government retaliation if they terminate employees in same-sex unions.

According to a May 28 report by the Center for Family & Human Rights (C-Fam), a source within the federal government has told C-Fam, “The White House is quietly moving forward with a policy change that will require charitable humanitarian groups to accept LGBT applicants in order to qualify for government funding, even those religious groups that might have religious objections.”

C-Fam reported the planned policy change is an extension of President Barack Obama’s July 2014 executive order requiring similar acceptance of LGBT employees by all federal contractors. At the time, the U.S. bishops denounced Obama’s action as “unprecedented and extreme.”

The Obama administration has already shown a willingness to tie government funding to abortion and contraception, in a way that compromises the capacity of Catholic organizations to participate in federal programs. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services cut its funding to the U.S. bishops’ anti-human-trafficking program because the bishops would not refer trafficking victims to the full range of “family-planning services.”

And in March, Catholic Relief Services joined other faith-based agencies in expressing concerns that a new federal government rule could force them to provide access to abortion-inducing “morning-after” pills and abortion for unaccompanied minors who cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Given that CRS is a beneficiary of federal funding, that spigot may suddenly turn off if they don’t hew the line that the government establishes, whatever that may be,” commented Tom Brejcha, president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Society.


Supreme Legal Threat

The difficulties facing Catholic institutions could be compounded massively if the Supreme Court rules late in June that same-sex “marriage” is a constitutional right, as many legal analysts are predicting.

Such a ruling could open the door to a wave of anti-discrimination lawsuits, and U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli even acknowledged the possibility that religious colleges could lose their tax-exempt status during his April 28 oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges, the case that could lead to the civil redefinition of marriage to include same-sex unions.

“The federal government has told us the religious freedom of your church, of your religious organization, is at stake. As Catholic institutions, we must take these threats seriously,” said Christiana Holcomb, litigation counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal organization.

Holcomb told the Register that the immediate threats will come in the form of anti-discrimination lawsuits based on statutes that an increasing number of states and municipalities are enacting to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

“These challenges are on the horizon, and the pace in which they will arrive will depend in large part on how the Supreme Court decides the marriage cases that are currently pending before it,” said Holcomb.

“The Church and other morally conservative bodies face extremely serious legal problems down the road if the Supreme Court declares a constitutional right to same-sex marriage,” agreed Russell Shaw, a Catholic writer and former communications director for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Indeed, these problems already exist.”

Shaw told the Register that militant civil libertarians and homosexual-rights advocates intend to push the issue “as far as they can.”

“These champions of toleration and diversity want total conformity, and they will use anti-discrimination laws and every other legal means at their disposal to get it,” Shaw said. “Make no mistake: The Church is in for a serious fight that it may very well lose.”


Other Conflicts

The fight is evident on many fronts. In San Francisco, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone is the target of an aggressive public-relations campaign waged by individuals sympathetic to the homosexual cause because of his efforts to include language in Catholic schoolteacher handbooks affirming the schools’ fidelity to the Church’s moral teachings on sexuality.

In 2013, a judge ordered the Archdiocese of Cincinnati to pay more than $170,000 in back pay and damages to a lesbian former Catholic schoolteacher who sued the archdiocese for firing her after she became pregnant through artificial insemination. More recently, the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., has come under fire for removing a priest campus minister from Seton Hall University after he expressed support for the “No H8” campaign advancing same-sex “marriage.”

And schools in other dioceses, including Santa Rosa, Calif., and Seattle, have become embroiled in similarly divisive controversies over their own efforts to strengthen Catholic-identity language in teachers’ contracts or for dismissing school employees who take public actions that contradict fundamental Church teachings regarding sexuality and marriage.


Protecting Identity

The reality that Catholic institutions employ people who disagree with Church teachings on marriage is generating discussion as to how those institutions can safeguard their religious identity and mission. Whether that includes insisting upon “morals clauses” in employment contracts or expanding the “ministerial exception” to teachers to make it easier to hold them accountable for publicly flouting Church teachings, Catholic institutions are currently wrestling with these issues.

“To some extent, this should be an uncontroversial issue. Starbucks should be free not to hire in a prominent position someone who thinks the coffee trade is radically unjust for the world’s poor,” said Sherif Girgis, a Catholic writer and speaker who co-authored the book What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense. Girgis told the Register that there are some “general rules of thumb” for Catholic organizations’ expectations for how their employees should conduct themselves in their public lives.

“The obligation to require public identification with the Church’s teaching will be stronger, obviously, the more prominent the role is with the organization and the more contact with the public that role involves,” said Girgis, who added that a relatively anonymous accountant is in “a very different position” from a Catholic university leader or faculty member.

“Still, I think it’s perfectly justified in any of these cases for any organization to require fidelity to the Church’s teaching, especially if it makes that requirement clear up front so the people know they’re getting into an organization that requires this, so that it is fair, and there is no bait and switch,” Girgis said.

Shaw said a Catholic organization should not hire anyone in a same-sex “marriage” or continue to employ the person if he or she enters into such a union after being hired if that person occupies a high-visibility position.

“Such an individual unavoidably is a public representative of the values and beliefs of his or her institutional employer —  in this case, the Catholic Church,” Shaw said.


Taking Action

Speaking to the Register, Archbishop Wenski detailed the actions he undertook immediately following the judicial order redefining marriage in Florida.

“In January, I shared with my employees the statement of the Florida Bishops’ Conference expressing our disappointment in the judge’s ruling (which overturned a constitutional amendment approved by more than 60% of Florida voters in 2008),” he said. “At the same time, I reminded them of the code of conduct to which they have to adhere to, as outlined in their employee handbook.”

Specifically, Archbishop Wenski referenced a handbook passage warning that, for all employees, “certain conduct, inconsistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church, could lead to disciplinary action, including termination, even if it occurs outside the normal working day and outside the strict confines of work performed by the employee for the archdiocese.”

“Not every employee has to be Catholic, but every employee should support the mission of the Church,” the archbishop elaborated to the Register. “After all, Coca-Cola would not tolerate an employee promoting Pepsi products or disparaging Coke products while an employee of Coca-Cola. Why should the Church be forced to hire or employ people who would work against our vision and our mission?”

For its part, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati has undertaken a number of steps since the 2013 civil award in favor of the teacher who was dismissed after becoming pregnant through IVF, an action that the Church teaches to be immoral.

“What we learned is we needed to do more work to establish that we consider our teachers to be ministers, and that is a fact,” said Dan Andriacco, communications director for the archdiocese.

Andriacco said the archdiocese thought that it had the legal right to define who is a minister after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in a 2012 case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, that the government cannot appoint ministers or prevent religious groups from selecting their own. But a judge in the pretrial stage ruled that the dismissed Cincinnati teacher was not a minister, a finding that was a “major reason” why the archdiocese subsequently included language in its teachers’ contract specifying that teachers are ministers and that they cannot publicly advocate for positions at odds with Church moral teachings.

And earlier this year, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati changed the wording of the morality clause in teacher contracts to ask the employees that they not engage in “public advocacy” for causes such as same-sex “marriage,” homosexual acts and abortion that violate Catholic teaching. Andriacco said the archdiocese has not disciplined any teachers for violations under the current contract. Violations will be handled on an individual basis, and discipline will depend on the nature of the violation.

Said Andriacco, "Today, parents who are faithful Catholics are fighting the culture, and they need some help from the Church and the schools.”


‘As Specific as Possible’

Lawyer Brejcha said all Catholic employers will need to be as “specific as possible” to their employees that they are required to comport themselves in accordance with the Church’s moral teachings, even holding regular seminars on the Catechism if necessary.

Said Brejcha: “If [Catholic institutions] expect everybody to behave with fidelity to the dictates of the Church, then they must elaborate that in the job descriptions and make sure they communicate that openly, explicitly and repeatedly to their workforces.”

Archbishop Wenski stressed that if current societal trends continue, the issue of how to bear authentic Catholic witness will continue to be a major challenge for the Church.

“Certainly there is a growing distance between our increasingly secularized culture and the Church’s vision of the human person and the conditions necessary for human flourishing in society,” he noted. “This vision is, of course, informed by our moral teaching — as Catholics we have to understand our vision and carry out our mission (bring the Gospel to all) in a way coherent with that vision.”

Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.