The U.S. bishops this week issued a letter criticizing what they said were shortcomings in proposed federal rules meant to address alleged discrimination against LGBT individuals in programs receiving federal Health and Human Services grants.
HHS had issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) earlier in the summer that the department said was meant to “affirm civil rights and equal opportunity for people nationwide in HHS funded programs and services.”
The new policy would “protect LGBTQI+ people from discrimination in important health and human services programs” by “clarifying and reaffirming the prohibition on discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in certain statutes” as they apply to grant recipients.
In a letter released Tuesday, the Office of the General Counsel within the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops warned that the NPRM reinterprets certain federal nondiscrimination statutes in a way that could, within the operation of Catholic charities, “create conflicts between the [rule’s] requirements and Catholic teaching.”
The letter noted, for instance, that many Catholic charities offer “emergency shelter for victims of domestic violence,” some of which are structured as single-sex environments.
Yet the proposed rules would “arguably mandate [the shelters] to house biological men who identify as women in single-sex facilities,” a policy that would violate the core Catholic teachings of “the immutable difference between, and dignity of, men and women.”
“Any charity that has separate men’s and women’s bathrooms or changing areas could be required to allow men to use the women’s facility and vice versa,” the letter suggested, adding further that “any charity may be required to address an employee or beneficiary by pronouns that do not correspond with his or her biological sex” in violation of Catholic beliefs.
The rule places “unconstitutional conditions on participation in government programs,” the general counsel wrote, which “threatens our capacity to carry out” Catholic charitable works.
Noting that the Catholic Church espouses a belief in “an order in the natural world that was designed by its Creator,” which includes “human bodies [that] are sexually differentiated as male or female,” the letter says that the proposed rule “reflects anthropological premises that are simply not true.”
The office noted that the policy does allow for religious conscience exemptions, but it argued that those provisions are designed in such a way as to invite “arbitrary and capricious applications of religious freedom protections.”
“We urge HHS to reconsider the NPRM’s reinterpretation of those sex discrimination provisions to include [sexual orientation and gender identity] requirements,” the letter says, “and to implement a religious exemption that properly respects religious charities’ statutory and constitutional rights.”
USCCB spokeswoman Chieko Noguchi on Wednesday said the bishops’ group declined to comment on the letter.
The Department of Health and Human Services said in its announcement of the proposed rule that it would allow comments on the policy for 60 days after the announcement. That window will close on Monday, Sept. 11.
HHS also did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the rule, including whether any alterations would be made to it prior to its enactment.