Will the NCAA Force Out Catholic Colleges?

Athletics has long been an important part of Catholic education in the United States, but trouble is brewing.

Already schools and colleges face social and legal pressure to abandon their Catholic mission and conform to gender ideology by allowing biological males to play on girls’ sports teams and enter locker rooms.

Now, proposed changes to the constitution of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) could prevent Catholic colleges from participating in the premier league, unless it takes steps to protect Catholic education’s commitment to truth and religious freedom. At the moment, it seems the NCAA has no intention of doing that.

The hurried effort to update the NCAA constitution — with a vote expected on Jan. 20 — is prompted by legal issues concerning the commercialization of student-athletes, financial disparities among the association’s three divisions and calls for greater institutional autonomy. Still, the process could not avoid the political correctness of our time. The latest draft proposal includes a new provision demanding that colleges “comply with federal and state laws and local ordinances, including respect to gender equity, diversity and inclusion.”

That might seem harmless, to require compliance with the law. But then again, why is there a need to add such a provision, with specific reference to “gender equity, diversity and inclusion”? There is an agenda here that threatens religious institutions.

Pushing out Catholic colleges

Earlier this year, the NCAA Board of Governors updated its policies to allow women to participate on either men’s or women’s teams, based on their self-declared gender. Men may compete on women’s teams if they have completed a year of testosterone suppression treatment. But religious colleges have preserved their autonomy to do what they know is best for their student-athletes.

The NCAA also publicly opposed state and local laws upholding the integrity of women’s athletics, declaring that it “firmly and unequivocally supports the opportunity for transgender student-athletes to compete in college sports.” No law, in fact, excludes students from participating in college sports, but they may be required to compete with others of the same biological sex.

The most dangerous laws go in the other direction. Many states and localities — and more recently, the federal government under the Biden administration — have sought to force religious institutions to adopt gender ideology in direct contradiction to their moral beliefs and understanding of human biology. This is done under the guise of nondiscrimination law.

Faithful Catholic colleges, however, do not truly discriminate against students with gender dysphoria. Instead, they have steadfastly upheld the advances made in women’s sports and have protected students morally and physically from the unreasonable demands of gender ideology, while the secular world endangers girls to satisfy activist demands and undermines hard-won opportunities to compete in sex-specific competitions.

Under federal law, religious institutions currently have some protections — despite recent court case attempting to erase the religious exemption in Title IX, which opposes sex discrimination in education but has been interpreted to mandate certain LGBT policies. The Biden administration supports legislation including the horrendous Equality Act that would unconstitutionally force religious institutions to comply with gender ideology.

If it becomes necessary for Catholic colleges to assert their rights and fight any new law or regulation in court — a law or regulation violating the religious mission of the colleges — how will the NCAA respect its members’ religious freedom? Based on the proposed new amendment to the NCAA constitution, it might be that the NCAA would exclude faithful colleges like Belmont Abbey College, the Catholic University of America and the University of Mary from participation. They could technically be in violation of existing (although clearly unconstitutional) laws.

In states and localities, legal protection for religious freedom is less secure, since the Title IX exemption for religious colleges and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) concern only federal law. Catholic colleges do have recourse to claims under the First Amendment, but fighting state and local laws that threaten religious education takes time, and many courts are not friendly to religious concerns when set against gender ideology.

Again, how will the NCAA treat a Catholic college fighting an unjust state or local law? Will it stand by its members? Instead, it seems the new constitutional provision is intended to push out any college that stands by traditional and natural divisions of the sexes in college sports.

This is the irony of the campaign for LGBT nondiscrimination protections: whereas new laws and private association rules will likely have minimal effect in correcting unjust discrimination — which has never been proven to be a widespread problem for LGBT-identifying Americans — the nation’s majority of religious people will be targeted and subjected to all kinds of legally protected discrimination for maintaining their religious beliefs and truthful policies toward gender and sexuality.

The result is much more discrimination, not less, and the erosion of America’s bedrock principle of religious freedom.

Solution rejected

If the NCAA does not intend such a threat to religious education, there is an easy fix: another amendment that recognizes the distinctive and appropriate needs of religious colleges.

That is precisely what some Catholic colleges, together with the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, proposed before the latest draft constitution — and yet their request was ignored. The language they suggested was quite simple: “Consistent with the principles of institutional control, nothing herein should be construed to restrict or limit private religious institutions from adopting or maintaining policies consistent with their legal rights as private religious institutions.”

The NCAA’s failure to embrace religious freedom and adopt this simple amendment is a very clear signal that its intentions toward Catholic and other religious colleges are not good. Efforts continue to advocate a religious freedom amendment in the new draft expected around Dec. 15. Without the amendment, NCAA members should reject the new constitution.

Otherwise, faithful Catholic colleges may have no option but to leave the troubled NCAA. What a great tragedy for all concerned, especially the young men and women whose interests are the last priority in the relentless march of ideological extremism.

This article first appeared at the National Catholic Register.

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