A Year-End Victory for Catholic Education

Last summer, I wrote about the urgency of holding a “crucial line of defense for Catholic education” against false ideology and attacks on Christian morality — and now, a key victory has been won in federal court!

On Dec. 13, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, is protected by the First Amendment in its right to uphold religious and moral standards for its members. It agreed with attorneys from the stalwart Becket institute and rejected an appeal by two former students who were dismissed from the seminary for violating agreed-upon standards by entering into civil same-sex marriages.

While the dismissal of two students at a nondenominational seminary may not seem immediately relevant to Catholic schools and colleges, in fact this case threatened to dismantle a crucial protection for religious education. The lawsuit challenged the religious exemption to Title IX, the federal law that bans sex discrimination in education, and the exemption’s availability to schools and colleges that are not directly controlled by a religious sect — as many private Catholic schools and nearly all Catholic colleges are not.

Why should this be important to Catholic educators? Surely they have no issues with preventing sex discrimination? Catholic schools and colleges have eagerly employed women, expanded opportunities for women’s sports and worked to combat sexual harassment and assault.

In fact, victory in this case now empowers Catholic educators to stand firmly in the defense of women and against the irrational demands of gender ideology, which would erode many of the gains made for women under Title IX.

The whole federal effort to prevent sex discrimination was upended in 2020 with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, which distorts the meaning of “sex discrimination” for purposes of employment law to include homosexuality and self-identified gender, even when it is contrary to one’s biological sex. Although Bostockapplies only to employment law under Title VII, activists and the Biden administration are attempting to conform Title IX to the demands of LGBT ideology.

This only hurts women, by giving biologically male students access to women’s sports competitions and bathrooms. It creates other serious problems for Catholic education by allowing teachers and students to ignore moral standards regarding same-sex marriage and homosexual behavior.

Nevertheless, as long as the robust religious exemption in Title IX stands, religious schools and colleges can uphold their beliefs and protect traditional separations between male and female facilities and athletics. The exemption stands in the way of radical attacks on religious education. That’s why, over the past year, we have seen multiple legislative and legal efforts by activists and the Biden administration to weaken or dismantle the Title IX religious exemption.

One of those now-failed efforts was Maxon v. Fuller Theological Seminary. The plaintiffs seized upon language in the Title IX religious exemption that says an eligible school or college must be “controlled by a religious organization.” Although the U.S. Department of Education has always exempted from Title IX clearly religious institutions that are nondenominational (like Fuller) or legally independent of a religious body (like nearly all Catholic colleges and many Catholic schools), the plaintiffs tried to have these institutions stripped of their religious freedom and forced to comply with the Biden administration’s strange interpretation of sex discrimination.

This would have been devastating for Catholic education. Last June, the Cardinal Newman Society and several faithful Catholic schools and colleges joined with the Christian Legal Society and other religious groups in an amicus briefurging the Ninth Circuit to reject the students’ appeal. Signers included Belmont Abbey College (North Carolina), Benedictine College (Kansas), Franciscan University of Steubenville (Ohio), Lumen Christi High School (Indiana), Marian High School (Indiana), the Regina Academies (Pennsylvania) and Thomas More College of Liberal Arts (New Hampshire).

Other signers representing a variety of beliefs included the American Association of Christian Schools, Association for Biblical Higher Education, Association of Christian Schools International, General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty, and Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

“It is dangerous and un-American to deny a share in religious freedom for nondenominational and independent religious institutions,” was my statement to media reporters last summer. “Such a policy would unconstitutionally discriminate against many of America’s religious schools and colleges, including those Catholic schools and colleges that are faithful to their beliefs but legally independent of the Catholic Church.”

The amicus brief called on the Ninth Circuit to recognize that an independent institution controlled by a board of trustees with deeply held religious convictions and a religious mission is sufficiently “controlled by a religious organization” for the purposes of the Title IX exemption.

Praise be to God, the court unanimously agreed. “For over 30 years, DOE [U.S. Department of Education] has maintained that the statute does not contain ‘an independent requirement that the controlling religious organization be a separate legal entity than the educational institution,’” the court noted. It upheld a district court’s ruling in 2020 and found that the plaintiffs “could allege no additional facts to save their challenge to Fuller’s differential treatment of same-sex marriages as compared to opposite-sex marriages, since Fuller’s actions fell squarely within Title IX’s religious exemption.”

Catholic educators and the whole of the Catholic Church received a wonderful gift, by this strong federal ruling for religious freedom. We live in a nation that still celebrates Christmas and allows Catholics to teach young people the truth of Christ — and for that we can be grateful in this merry season.

This article first appeared at the National Catholic Register.

Newman Society President Discusses Ministerial Exception on Drew Mariani Relevant Radio Show

Patrick Reilly, president and founder of The Cardinal Newman Society, joined the Drew Mariani Show on Relevant Radio Tuesday to discuss an appeal to the United States Supreme Court regarding the “ministerial exception” and its protection for religious colleges. A recording is available here.

The guest host Ed Morrissey noted that the Newman Society had co-filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court requesting that it block the Massachusetts Superior Court’s narrow reading of the ministerial exception, thereby allowing a professor of social work to sue Gordon College for denying her a  promotion.

The ministerial exception is a First Amendment principle that bars courts from interfering with personnel decisions concerning employees who have substantial religious duties, including religious instruction and formation. The Supreme Court upheld the exception for a school teacher in Hosanna Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC (2012) and reaffirmed the exception for religion teachers at Catholic schools in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru last summer.

“In both cases they made it very clear that teaching the faith is about as ministerial as it gets, that the institutions are protected from lawsuits based on discrimination,” Reilly explained.

The Gordon College case has special importance for the ministerial exception, Reilly said, “because it involves a college, which the Supreme Court has not yet considered, and it also involves someone who is not teaching theology, but is teaching social work,” Reilly said.  “At Gordon College they make very clear that every professor must be teaching the faith as part of their course work [and] they should be protected as part of the ministerial exception.”

The Gordon College case is yet another attempt to “rein in the ministerial exception,” Reilly said, citing a recent case in which a parish employee sued the Archdiocese of Chicago, claiming that the “ministerial exception only applies to hiring and firing decisions and not other employment decisions” including claims of a hostile work environment. The Newman Society petitioned the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals to support the First Amendment rights of religious employers, which the court did in July.

Host Morrissey noted the importance of these rulings and the ministerial exception, pointing out that “the point of the church teaching function is to promote church teaching.”

“To have the state step into those decisions, certainly in Hosanna Tabor, the Supreme Court found it to be almost an explicit intrusion into religious faith and religious exercise,” he said.

Newman Society Urges Supreme Court to Apply Ministerial Exception to Religious Colleges

On Thursday, The Cardinal Newman Society, which promotes and defends faithful Catholic education, with the International Alliance for Christian Education and the Association for Biblical Higher Education, urged the United States Supreme Court to overturn a Massachusetts high court ruling that would severely restrict the ministerial exception for religious higher education.

The amicus brief was authored and filed on Sept. 2 by Sharon Rose and Samuel Diehl of the Washington, D.C.-based Cross Castle PLLC.

In March, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled in Gordon College v. DeWeese-Boyd that Gordon College is indeed a Christian college and its professors are required to teach and uphold Christian principles, but the Court nevertheless allowed a dissenting social work professor to proceed with a lawsuit against the college for refusing to promote her. Court interference in religious hiring practices is a violation of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause and the ministerial exception, according to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last year in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Beru.

“Catholic and other religious colleges deserve the same First Amendment protections that have been upheld for religious schools,” said Patrick Reilly, President of The Cardinal Newman Society. “The Supreme Court last year clearly upheld the ministerial exception with regard to a schoolteacher hired specifically to teach religion classes. We now call on the Court to make clear that the ministerial exception applies to professors, regardless of their discipline, at institutions where religious faith informs all that is taught and employees are required to be witnesses to religious beliefs.”

As argued in the brief, “Gordon is entitled to define its faith and determine how that faith is carried out in matters of internal government and employment, not individual faculty members. The standard the Massachusetts Court applied fundamentally threatens Gordon’s and other religious institutions’ ability to accomplish their missions and to maintain their pervasively religious character.”

Statement on ruling in Starkey v. Roncalli High School and Archdiocese of Indianapolis

The Cardinal Newman Society hailed Wednesday’s federal court ruling in Starkey v. Roncalli High School and Archdiocese of Indianapolis as a “landmark ruling with enormous implications for Catholic education and its First Amendment right to expect fidelity and moral behavior from all employees, not just teachers, whose duties impact the Christian formation of students.”

The ruling in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana upholds the ministerial exception according to last summer’s Supreme Court ruling in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru. But the Supreme Court case concerned a lawsuit filed by a religion teacher in a Catholic school. The Indiana case is an important development, because it affirms that the federal court cannot interfere in the employment decisions of a Catholic school regarding its guidance counselor.

The case involves Lynn Starkey, who attempted to sue Roncalli High School and the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. She was fired from her job as Co-Director of Guidance when she entered into a same-sex union, a clear violation of Catholic moral teaching and of moral standards for Catholic school employees.

“Wednesday’s ruling is a landmark ruling with enormous implications for Catholic education and its First Amendment right to expect fidelity and moral behavior from all employees, not just teachers, whose duties impact the Christian formation of students,” said Patrick Reilly, President of The Cardinal Newman Society.

“Catholic schools must have the freedom to hire educators and other employees who model the teachings of the Church. Catholic schools around the country should take an example from Roncalli High School and the policies of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, which have clear moral standards for Catholic school employees. As this case shows, courts will uphold religious freedom when they see consistent application of Catholic moral standards.”

A Crucial Line of Defense for Catholic Education

Catholic education could face severe hardships should the religious protection that is built into Title IX — the federal law banning sex discrimination — be taken away. And that is exactly what some activists and the Biden administration hopeto do.

The Administration and some federal courts now interpret Title IX as a ban on teaching and upholding authentic gender, sexuality and marriage. But since the law was first enacted in 1972, Title IX has exempted religious schools and colleges from any application of the law that conflicts with their religious beliefs. Predictably, LGBT activists are now striving to undo that exemption.

For Catholics, it should be a top priority to hold that line. It doesn’t mean that we should focus only on exempting religion from bad laws while our culture collapses. But ultimately winning the culture war requires that we form young people in faith, reason and wisdom — all of which are in short supply today. I see no path to a renewal of the Church and culture without a renewal of faithful Catholic education.

We must carve out protection for Catholic education if we are ever to win the larger battle. If the religious exemption to Title IX falls, Catholic schools and colleges will probably fall also, and even Catholic homeschooling may be targeted. That’s because the impact will be felt far beyond restrictions on federal money for education, which is the trigger that subjects an institution to Title IX. Even more, a collapse of the Title IX religious exemption is likely to cascade into anti-Catholic bigotry in state law, accreditation, academic associations, athletic leagues, etc., until there is minimal tolerance for any form of truly Catholic education.


Lawsuits target exemption

Among the threats to the Title IX religious exemption are two lawsuits which are unlikely to succeed — but if they do, the consequences could be devastating.

One of the lawsuits seeks to exploit a narrow interpretation of the Title IX exemption itself. The exemption states that Title IX “shall not apply to an educational institution which is controlled by a religious organization, if the application of this subsection would not be consistent with the religious tenets of such organization.”

Two students who were expelled from Fuller Theological Seminary for violating rules against same-sex unions have asked the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to deny the seminary access to the Title IX exemption, because Fuller is nondenominational and independent of any organized religion. This, they argue, is not within the scope of institutions that are “controlled by a religious organization.”

The danger to Catholic education is enormous, should this argument prevail. Most Catholic colleges and many lay-established Catholic schools in the U.S. are not legally owned by the Church. They have independent boards of trustees that legally control the institutions. If the Title IX exemption is interpreted to exclude such independent operations, many of our Catholic schools and colleges as well as America’s nondenominational Christian institutions would no longer be protected.

Just last month, the Cardinal Newman Society and a number of faithful Catholic schools and colleges joined an amicus brief urging the Ninth Circuit to acknowledge that an institution controlled by a board of trustees that is committed to certain religious beliefs is, in fact, “controlled by a religious organization” for the purposes of Title IX. That is precisely how the U.S. Department of Education has always interpreted the exemption. The regulations implementing Title IX exempt any “educational institution [that] has a published institutional mission that is approved by the governing body of an educational institution and that includes, refers to, or is predicated upon religious tenets, beliefs, or teachings.”

But there’s another lawsuit that takes aim at the entire Title IX exemption. A group of students and alumni from various Christian colleges have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education, calling for the religious exemption in Title IX to be struck down as unconstitutional because, by protecting religious institutions, it creates an “establishment of religion.” This contradicts longstanding practice of the Education Department and religious exemptions throughout federal law.


Stand firm

If the religious exemption to Title IX were struck down, Catholic schools and colleges could be forced to give up federal aid and, much worse, face a growing number of legal and social obstacles that could render Catholic educators unable to promote and educate their students in the eternal truths of the Church, both moral and academic.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is pursuing an end run around the Title IX exemption that could have similar consequences. By promoting the Equality Act — which was approved in the House and has been introduced in the Senate — the Administration has pinned its hopes on expanding the definition of discrimination under the separate Title VI and thereby opening the door to lawsuits and restrictions against religious education.

Catholic schools should be prepared to defend against these ever evolving and worrisome attacks on religious freedom. Courts have historically turned a kinder eye to institutions that maintain a sincere and consistent adherence to their professed moral beliefs. The best defense against these attacks, then, is for Catholic schools and colleges to consistently uphold the truths of the Church in their teaching, policies and activities.

The Church is used to weathering attacks. It has endured far worse than agenda-driven activists and lawyers seeking to overturn U.S. civil rights law. And recent court victories for religious freedom offer hope that the latest attacks will fail. But the attacks are worrisome nonetheless because of their direct opposition to religious freedom, and if they succeed, they could hurt thousands of Catholic families.

This article first appeared at the National Catholic Register.

‘Fulton’ Ruling Teaches Important Lesson to Catholic Educators

A leading attorney for the defense of religious freedom says Catholic educators can learn an important lesson from the Supreme Court’s recent Fulton ruling, which allowed Catholic Social Services of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to uphold its faithfully Catholic practices. The lesson: Have courage and stand firm in the Faith.

Like Catholic social and medical services, Catholic education faces growing threats from the Biden administration and many states and localities because of Catholic beliefs about the sanctity of life, the human person and marriage. While educators may be tempted to compromise on programs like women’s athletics or on policies like moral standards for teachers, doing so violates the very mission of Catholic education, and there is no escaping confrontation with gender ideology. The best legal protection is to be consistently and firmly committed to the Catholic faith.

“As Fulton shows, religious freedom is stronger when Catholic apostolates are standing in a long historical tradition and have the courage of their convictions,” says Eric Kniffin, legal adviser to The Cardinal Newman Society and attorney with Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie LLP. He also worked previously for the Becket Fund and the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

“On the contrary,” he warns, “if Catholic schools disregard their calling and lose their saltiness, they will have a much harder time convincing students, parents and judges that they need religious accommodations.”

The Court’s June 17 ruling in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia protects the right of Catholic Social Services to continue receiving City of Philadelphia funding, without yielding to the City’s demand that it place children for foster care with same-sex couples. The Court’s deference to Catholic Social Services’ mission and beliefs, says Kniffin, is heartening given the Biden administration’s efforts to impose broad accommodations for homosexuality and transgender behavior in schools and colleges by twisting the nondiscrimination provisions of the federal Title IX education law.

Last Wednesday, the Biden administration released a “Dear Educator” letter insisting that “Title IX’s protection against sex discrimination encompasses discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity,” despite the fact that Congress never intended the law to have such a meaning. On Monday, the Court declined to consider a Virginia school board’s appeal to preserve the privacy of boys’ and girls’ bathrooms, leaving educators vulnerable to the Administration’s gender ideology.

The Education Department’s letter last week indicated that it expects schools and colleges to allow students to choose athletic teams based on their stated “gender identity” and give them access to the bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice. Moreover, the Department indicated that it would mandate what educators can believe and teach about sex, warning against a scenario in which “the teacher tells the class that there are only boys and girls and anyone who thinks otherwise has something wrong with them.”

Good for education

But the Fulton decision offers some hope of protection for religious education, to the extent that the Supreme Court respected Catholics’ right to uphold fundamental truths about human nature and sexuality.

“One of the most important victories for the Catholic Church in Fulton is that the Supreme Court voted unanimously in favor of a religious entity that believes that ‘marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman,’” Kniffin says. “Some on the left have argued that such a statement is akin to racial bigotry. The Court’s unanimous decision is a strong repudiation of that analogy.”

Instead, the Court remained consistent with its Obergefell ruling in 2015, which said, “Many who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises, and neither they nor their beliefs are disparaged here.”

In his majority opinion in Fulton, Chief Justice John Roberts took notice of the Catholic Church’s long history of serving children as an extension of its religious exercise, not apart from it. Catholic education is no different. This was a point that Kniffin made in the amicus brief he authored last year for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference.

“This history was important in the Fulton case, because the City and its allies claimed that foster care has now become a ‘public service,’ which means that the contracts at issue here had no more religious significance than contracts for ‘road maintenance,’” Kniffin explains. His brief for the USCCB noted that the Court had already rejected this line of argument with respect to Catholic education in the 2012 Hosanna-Tabor ruling, which affirmed the ministerial exception for certain Catholic school teachers. In that case, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission made the outrageous argument that the First Amendment does not apply to Catholic schools providing a “socially beneficial service … in compliance with State compulsory education laws.”

Just as Hosanna-Tabor helped the Archdiocese of Philadelphia make its case, the Fulton ruling gives Catholic education an even stronger argument for religious freedom, Kniffin says. “While caring for orphans falls under the corporal works of mercy, the work of Catholic schools falls under the spiritual works of mercy. When carried out as the Catholic Church intends … Catholic schools are carrying out a core religious exercise.”

On the other hand, the Fulton ruling is also a reminder of how fragile such rights can be in today’s secular society. Although the Supreme Court had the opportunity with this case to overturn its 1990 ruling in Employment Services v. Smith, it avoided the issue, thereby allowing states and cities like Philadelphia to attempt further discrimination against Catholic organizations as long as their laws and rules are generally applicable without exceptions. Catholic Social Services may soon have to return to court to protect its foster care services and force a review of Smith— or that review might occur because of a case involving Catholic education, which faces challenges with licensing, school choice funding, accreditation, participation in athletic conferences and other state and local attempts to impose gender ideology despite Catholic beliefs.

“The good news is that five justices in Fulton said that they believe that the Free Exercise Clause protects more religious liberty than the Smith decision might indicate,” Kniffin says. “Hopefully, this consensus will help dissuade government from even stronger efforts to force Catholic schools to abandon their convictions on matters of sexual morality and the human person. But if they do, the Court seems poised to protect the First Amendment right to free exercise.”

As for federal programs like college student loans and aid for textbooks and busing, Catholic education is protected by the religious exemption in Title IX — except that the Biden administration wants to maneuver around that exemption with the harmful Equality Act. Activists are also attempting to dismantle the Title IX exemption in court. To counter their arguments, the Cardinal Newman Society recently joined an amicus brief with the Christian Legal Society, several groups representing various religious beliefs, and Catholic schools and colleges that are recognized by the Newman Society for their faithful education.

By standing firm and refusing to yield our religious freedom, Catholic educators can hopefully continue to win in court. Moreover, the formation that Catholic education provides young people — if it remains consistently faithful to the teachings of the Church — can eventually renew society and restore respect for truth.

This article first appeared at the National Catholic Register.

Protecting Your Right to Educate: How Catholic Education Can Defend Against Emerging Legal Threats

Editor’s Note: The article below is included in the forthcoming spring 2021 edition of the Newman Society’s Our Catholic Mission magazine.

Half a century into a sexual revolution that has upturned notions of sexual morality and even gender identity, Catholic education is under attack like never before. Religious schools and colleges are facing protests, lawsuits and other serious threats—all because Catholic educators hold fast to Church teachings that were considered common sense even a decade ago.

Catholic schools and colleges have not sought out and do not want this confrontation. They exist to form young people to serve and worship God and to spread love and hope to others, rooted in the Church’s teaching on the dignity of the human person and God’s design for human sexuality. But educators are finding that, due to forces beyond their control, their freedom to operate according to conscience and mission is shrinking.

No option for compromise

As legal and cultural pressures continue to swell, Catholic school leaders must decide now how they will respond. Many Catholic educators decided a long time ago to assimilate with changes in modern culture. This is a non-starter for schools and colleges that take seriously the mission of authentic Catholic education. Nor is it realistic for Catholic educators to simply hope that this cultural moment will pass them by without incident.

Another option would be to make some compromises with the culture in the hopes of brokering a peace. The pervasive attacks on traditional moral teaching have led some religious leaders to try to compromise and thereby win some good will from gender and sexuality activists. Mormon and Evangelical leaders have tried this approach in recent years, with decidedly mixed results.

In 2015 the Mormon Church threw its weight behind the “Utah Compromise,” an attempt to broker a truce in the culture war by pairing new civil rights protections with religious-liberty protections for faith-based organizations. At the end of 2018, major Evangelical Christian groups—including the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and the National Association of Evangelicals—endorsed their own version of this compromise approach under the slogan “Fairness for All.” One supporter described the effort to World Magazine in these terms:

As Christian higher educators, we are increasingly persuaded that the most viable political strategy is for comprehensive religious freedom protections to be combined with explicit support for basic human rights for members of the LGBT community.

So far, however, there is little reason to call the “Fairness for All” approach a success. While progressive activists celebrated what they were able to accomplish in Utah, they quickly signaled that it was not enough, and that they would push for more whenever they had the opportunity. Advocates specifically complained that the “Utah Compromise” yielded too much so-called “religious liberty.” The Left has come to see the battle between progressive goals and religious liberty as a zero-sum game, and increasingly decries “religious liberty” as a code word for bigotry. There is little reason for religious conservatives to believe they can change people’s minds on this by compromising on nondiscrimination law.

If compromising principles in order to placate progressive critics is a flawed political strategy, it is perhaps an even worse legal strategy. At one point, the University of Notre Dame told a federal judge that, consistent with Ex corde Ecclesiae, it was prohibited from paying for, providing, or facilitating access to contraceptives. But in 2014, the University reversed course and voluntarily began complying with the HHS Mandate. This sort of inconsistency invites courts to probe as to whether a school’s stated religious convictions are sincere, a key inquiry in religious liberty cases. Perhaps even worse, it encourages protestors and plaintiffs by giving them reason to hope that Catholic institutions will cave if only the heat is turned up hot enough.

Adopt strong Catholic policies

Rather than trying to appease the Church’s critics, Catholic organizations should instead look to clarify and strengthen their religious identity. This is the best way for Catholic schools and colleges to embrace their distinctive mission.

As The Cardinal Newman Society has stressed, the Church calls Catholic educators “to remain vigilant in their mission” by resisting the temptation to conform to the world. Schools and colleges must do this “by preserving a Catholic culture which proclaims essential truths about the nature and dignity of the human person.”

Fortunately, this ecclesial mandate is also a strong and wise legal strategy. While the challenges facing churches and religious organizations are daunting, our nation’s bedrock commitment to religious liberty remains strong. This historical commitment continues to live in the First Amendment’s protections for religious and expressive freedom, broad religious liberty statutes, and specific exemptions found in a number of laws.

Conduct a Mission Audit

In order to best protect their religious liberty, it is imperative that Catholic schools and colleges understand and take full advantage of these protections. To do so, Catholic educators should undertake a Mission Audit to help them understand where they are likely to face challenges and to ensure that they have an architecture in place to protect their freedom to minister and work in accordance with their faith. A Mission Audit also helps schools implement strong Catholic standards, such as those developed by the Newman Society, in every aspect of Catholic education.

Just as a general audit helps an organization understand its financial soundness, a Mission Audit will help a religious organization understand how its religious convictions affect its work and how these convictions may face conflict. The proposed mission audit outlines the kind of practical steps religious institutions can take to avoid such conflicts, improve their ability to claim religious liberty protections, and prepare themselves for potential challenges.

Many school and college leaders see the need to make improvements along these lines but struggle to understand where to begin and what steps they should be taking in the short term. The Mission Audit that I have guided dozens of school, colleges, and other religious institutions through begins with getting leaders around a table to make sure they have clarity about their mission and convictions. Building on this consensus, leaders should ask some high-level questions to get a sense about what they need in order to accomplish their mission and whether documents and policies adequately convey these requirements. The most important areas to review are employee expectations, student expectations, nondiscrimination statements, and facilities use policies. Schools may also want to make sure they understand the nondiscrimination requirements they are subject to through professional or extracurricular organizations like sports leagues.

In undertaking this overview, school leaders may find it helpful to refer to guides that have been prepared and made available by religious liberty groups. But while publicly available guides and templates can be a good start, most schools and colleges should invest in a more detailed and individualized strategy. Every organization’s circumstances are different, and sophisticated entities should not entrust their legal exposure to an online resource any more than they would forego individualized tax advice.

Each organization’s process will need to take into account the challenges in its locality, as well as the religious liberty provisions specific to the organization type and location. The audit outlined below is a sizable undertaking, but such planning is necessary as a matter of stewardship and prudent leadership. While each such audit must be tailored to the particular entity, every organization’s process should involve three basic steps:

1. Clarify scope and objectives

The first step in the audit process is for school and college leaders, together with legal counsel, to discuss the institution’s general concerns and establish the scope of the audit. Most Mission Audits should address the following subject areas:

Corporate documents

Is the school or college taking advantage of available opportunities to establish its identity as a religious organization under relevant laws?

Public accommodations

Does the school or college have policies and procedures for facility use and rental? If so, does its process properly balance reasons for renting its facilities with its ability to control how the campus is used?

Nondiscrimination policies

Do nondiscrimination policies—in handbooks, policy manuals, and elsewhere—accurately reflect how the school or college makes decisions?

Student conduct issues

Do promotional materials, enrollment process, student handbook, disciplinary process and procedures, etc., appropriately communicate and secure consent regarding the community’s standards and their connection to the religious identity of the school or college?

Employee conduct issues

Does the school or college understand how available religious liberty protections apply to each position? Has it laid the proper groundwork so that it is able to invoke available religious liberty protections when necessary?

Sexual abuse

Do policies and procedures for handling allegations of sexual abuse or misconduct reflect best practices? Is the school or college well-positioned to handle allegations in a manner that balances justice and mercy and that prepares it to address related public relations and legal challenges?

2. Audit policies and procedures

The second stage of the audit involves reviewing how the school or college operates at present. The audit usually begins with a document review and continues with follow-up questions and conversations. A thorough document review typically involves the following: corporate documents; human resources documents; student-related documents; sexual abuse policies and procedures; facility rental policies and procedures; and documents related to third-party obligations, including sports leagues, grants, and government contracts.

3. Develop recommendations

While the first two stages of the audit help a school or college understand where it stands, this final stage is the most important. Here, educators will identify and implement strategies to help them continue to pursue their mission despite the present and emerging threats to religious liberty.

The first goal is to identify obstacles that can be avoided. The school or college could seek to: eliminate unnecessary legal conflicts; eliminate peripheral activities; reduce dependence on government funding; or reduce oversight from licensing or accrediting organizations.

For those conflicts that are not easily avoidable, religious organizations should work to improve their ability to claim crucial protections for religious liberty. By scholar Douglas Laycock’s count, there were 2,000 religious exemptions in state and federal law in 1992. The audit should help educators identify the religious liberty protections most relevant to their activities and identify ways to reshape policies, practices, and documentation in light of these protections.

Finally, the audit recommends ways for the school or college to avoid controversy. While positioning itself to qualify for religious liberty protections, a religious organization should not overlook some simple, practical things it can do to avoid controversy. It should do everything it can to treat employees well and to apply moral standards consistently.

Mission Audits can be conducted with other peer organizations to save on costs and should be done through trusted legal counsel.

Undertaking a Mission Audit—and implementing strong Catholic standards like the Newman Society outlines on the following pages—will go a long way in helping Catholic schools strengthen their mission and defend against legal threats.


Eric Kniffin is legal advisor to The Cardinal Newman Society and a partner with Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie LLP in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he specializes in protecting religious institutions. This article is adapted from a paper published at the Newman Society’s website. It should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. The contents are intended for general informational purposes only.

The Biden Administration Poses New Threats to Catholic Education

In just the first months of the Biden administration, Catholic educators have been confronted by serious threats to their freedom to teach and witness to the Catholic faith.

We knew the storm was coming. Over the last four years, schools and colleges enjoyed a brief respite before the anticipated return of Obama-era policies like the mandate for contraception coverage in healthcare plans and attempts to open bathrooms and locker rooms to students of the opposite sex.

The new threats loom even larger. Catholics face radical attempts to erode protections for our schools, colleges, homeschooling, and all models of Catholic education to fulfill their mission to uphold the moral law and other Catholic teaching. In particular, the Biden administration seems determined to force Catholic schools and colleges—and all religious organizations—to embrace gender ideology or close their doors.

President Biden has promised to sign the dangerous Equality Act in his first 100 days. At this time, the Equality Act has passed the House and is awaiting a vote in the Senate, where its fate may depend on whether the Senate ends the filibuster and requires only a majority vote. Meanwhile, some Republicans have floated a false compromise—misnamed “Fairness for All”—that would only partly delay the collapse of religious freedom.

Continue reading at Crisis Magazine…

Nick Sandmann

Justice for Nick Sandmann — and All of Us

Last year during a Catholic school trip to the March for Life in Washington, D.C., Nick Sandmann and his peers were bullied by shameless activists and then belittled by shameless activist journalists. Now justice has begun.

CNN has agreed to some type of settlement with Sandmann for its reckless and false reporting, after the boy and his family filed an $800 million lawsuit against the television news company, The Washington Post and NBC Universal. Reality is about to hit the latter two companies also, and rightly so.

I am delighted to see this boy and his family defeat Goliath — and it’s a win for all of us, especially those who brave the weather each year to attend the March for Life as well as the West Coast Walk for Life, only to be heckled by those who defend the most abhorrent practices and (worse) largely ignored by the media.

The persecution of Sandmann and the Covington Catholic School students could easily happen to any of us — and not just in Washington, D.C., but at any restaurant or supermarket across the U.S. Although American libel laws are woefully inadequate to protecting anybody deemed a “public figure” by the courts, we can be grateful that the laws still protect the average citizen — people like Nick Sandmann, simply exercising his free speech in an extraordinarily restrained manner.

God bless you, Nick, for taking your fight to the courts! You fight for Americans everywhere.

The witness of young Catholics

The news of the CNN settlement arrives just two weeks before this year’s March for Life on Jan. 24 and the West Coast Walk for Life on Jan. 26, when thousands of Catholic school and college students will gather once again, countering a culture of death.

Is it any surprise that, when Americans gather to protest an atrocity as evil as abortion, evil retaliates with insults, attacks and unpredictable situations?

We expect it, but there was a time not so long ago when adults refrained from targeting young people, because of a general respect for their innocence and the space they need to grow and mature. Even if the Covington boys had acted improperly — and from what I have seen on the videos, not every boy had the composure that Sandmann displayed — it was simply wrong for national media to destroy boys’ reputations for reacting to angry and drum-banging political activists.

Sure, some of the Covington Catholic School boys were wearing “Make America Great Again” hats, and the most hardened “never Trumper” thinks that makes them fair game for protest. But these were young tourists, excited to support their president and the dignity of babies. School boys are not appropriate targets for nasty political protests.

Unlike the activists who confronted him, Sandman acted commendably by keeping his cool in a confusing and hostile situation. School and college students—and all others, young and old—who are traveling to this year’s March for Life would do well to follow Sandmann’s lead when faced with the inevitable hatred of pro-abortion protestors. From what I have seen in past years, the young people at the March for Life do an outstanding job of keeping it positive and celebrating life, even while protesting the horrors of abortion.

Indeed, pro-life students from across the U.S. cheerfully overcome all sorts of obstacles when attending the March for Life under wintry conditions. In 2016, there was a different flurry of media attention after the March for Life, when buses returning to Midwest schools, colleges and parishes were hit with a massive snowstorm. Some groups were stranded on the Pennsylvania Turnpike for more than 24 hours.

These included students, faculty and staff from the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota, a faithful Newman Guide college. One student told The Cardinal Newman Society that being stuck in the snow had its perks, because it brought much-needed media attention to the March for Life. Media coverage revealed the joy and optimism of the group, and it “showed the dedication of the students for this issue,” the student explained.

The nation’s media should be ashamed that snowstorms and activist attacks on young people are the only way the March for Life gets substantial attention. Hopefully this year is different.

A chastised media?

This month, as every year, Catholic students will travel in buses from across the country to march against abortion. They will brave the cold weather and sleep on the floors of gyms and churches. They will do their part to make a stand for life!

Keep an eye out for Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, which is sending eight buses with nearly 500 students. At least five buses and more than 250 students from Benedictine College of Kansas will travel more than 1,000 miles. Presidents from both colleges and leaders and students from several other faithful Catholic colleges will March for Life.

Christendom College in Virginia always closes campus for the day, so students, faculty and staff can attend the March. Other Catholic colleges that typically cancel classes during the March include The Catholic University of America, The Thomas More College of Liberal Arts and Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts.

The story of what will happen at this year’s March for Life is yet to be written, and a chastised media might think about highlighting the example of the extraordinary young people who come to the March each year. Catholic students are numerous at the March, and they witness to the dignity of human life all year long. May God bless them for their witness!

This article first appeared at The National Catholic Register.

School of Athens

The Trouble with Charter Schools

In the last few decades, many alternatives to public schooling have become popular, including charter schools of a “classical” framework. However, despite their impressive results in many important areas, we cannot forget what can only be accomplished at an authentic Catholic school – one that embraces its identity and mission with gusto.

At The Catholic World Report, Dr. Dan Guernsey writes:

As principal of a “classical” Catholic school and a lifelong advocate for the liberal arts, I am excited by the growing classical school movement—which now has reached even many public charter schools. Catholic families are understandably attracted to charter schools’ free tuition and classical schools’ commitment to established curricula, teaching methods and virtue development.

But a secular school can never be a worthy substitute for authentic Catholic education and some parents seem to be either unaware or unconvinced of the Church’s reasons for requiring them to choose Catholic education if it is available.

Continue reading at The Catholic World Report…