St. Louis, Missouri, serves as an oasis of blue in the otherwise red state of Missouri. The progressive city has long championed civil rights in the state legislature — sadly, with very little success — and has attempted to buffer itself with local ordinances to keep conservative laws from wreaking too much havoc.
The St. Louis anti-discrimination bill serves as a prime example of how the city has protected itself in the post-Trump era.
In February, St. Louis voted to add “reproductive health decisions” to the list of categories that employers may not use as the basis for discrimination. The move would forbid businesses from firing, refusing to hire or withholding housing from someone based on that individual’s pregnancy status, abortion history or birth control use.
“The bill’s sponsor, 15th Ward Alderman Megan Green, said the legislation was an attempt to shield women from discrimination at the local level, particularly in deep-red Missouri where state lawmakers are unlikely to offer housing and workplace protections for matters dealing with reproductive health,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported at the time. “‘Employers can have their own beliefs,’ Green said. ‘But they shouldn’t be able to impose those beliefs on people or fire someone because of those beliefs.”‘
The Catholic Church of St. Louis, however, begs to disagree.
Following through on their threat to the city council, the diocese has filed a lawsuit claiming that the bill infringes upon their religious beliefs by withholding the freedom to hire, fire and otherwise interact as they choose with those who may not follow their religious tenets.
The Church’s biggest public fear appears to be that the non-discrimination ordinance is turning St. Louis into a “sanctuary city” for abortion — not just for those who undergone the procedure, but also for those who “promote” it.
“The language of the new law creates protections for anyone who has ‘made a decision related to abortion,’ even when the abortion is not their own, and even includes legal protections for corporations and all business organizations,” argues Catholic writer Kathy Schiffer at NCRegister. “It forbids any entity, including Christian organizations and individuals whose teachings hold abortion to be a grave sin, from refusing to sell or rent property to individuals or corporate organizations that promote or provide abortions. The law’s limited religious exemptions are vague and undefined and do not cover individuals.”
But as the Associated Press notes, the ordinance addition deals with far more than abortion.
“A group of St. Louis Catholics filed a lawsuit against the city Monday over a local ordinance that prohibits discrimination based on ‘reproductive health decisions,’ saying the law could force employers or landlords to go against their religious beliefs,” the Associated Press writes. “The law, enacted in February, bars employers from hiring or firing people based on whether they have had an abortion, get pregnant outside of marriage, or use contraceptives or artificial insemination. Landlords also can’t refuse to rent to someone based on those criteria.”
With President Donald Trump recently signing an executive order that will provide even more protections for “religious liberty,” the lawsuit may be a slam dunk for the Catholic Church — and that’s a worrisome trend for the rest of the country.
If the diocese is successful, it could set a true precedent that would allow religious employers and others to justify their acts as inspired by moral beliefs, excluding them from any type of discrimination laws.
It would also open the doors for employers to reject job applicants simply because they don’t want to employee a single mother, or to refuse to offer housing to a cohabitating couple. Cashiers could even refuse to sell condoms to anyone without a wedding ring.
Religious liberty was never meant to put Christians on a pedestal from which they could pick and choose federal or local laws based solely on their faith. The original intent was to preserve the right for all people to practice religion freely — not to punish those who live their lives under a different set of beliefs.
And as more socially conservative politicians strip government services and enable faith-based organizations to fill the gaps, these measures are giving religious leaders even more power over those of other — or no — faiths.
This St. Louis city ordinance may be just the first blow against the separation of church and state, but it also may be the most dangerous one. And sadly, it is unlikely to be the last.