Dowling v. Valley – Is the Next Big Religious Liberty Debate in Our Own Backyard?

ReligiousLibertyStudents at Valley High School have petitioned the West Des Moines school board to stop renting out the district’s facilities to organizations that they believe discriminate against gay and lesbian individuals.

The petition is in response to an incident involving Dowling Catholic High School not offering a full-time teaching position to Tyler McCubbin, a substitute teacher, because his openly gay lifestyle was in conflict with the church’s teachings. Dowling currently rents Valley High Schools athletic facilities to host sporting events and to conduct practices.

Bishop Richard Pates of the Diocese of Des Moines explained the school’s position in an April 7th statement following the news of the school’s decision not to offer full time employment to this substitute teacher who happened to be gay. “Catholic schools are an extension of the church and are committed to following the church’s teachings and doctrine in employment matters, Bishop Pates explained. “Our contracts contain specific language that outline the expected code of conduct in accord with long accepted Church teaching.”

The statement also explained that, during the hiring process, the school discovered via social media that the applicant was in a same-sex relationship and engaged. “The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls for us to accept those with same-sex tendencies ‘with respect, compassion and sensitivity.’ Such an approach has guided the school’s relationship with the applicant in question. We wish him only well,” Pates added.

Last week, Dowling approved a request from its students to form a gay-straight alliance at the school called “One Human Family.” “Pope Francis has challenged us to be sensitive and provide a caring, compassionate, respectful environment for all of our students on their faith journey,” wrote Jerry Deegan, Dowling’s President.

“Some will believe that One Human Family will not be progressive enough while others may believe the formation of this club is misguided,” the letter continued. “As the president of Dowling Catholic, I will always strive, along with our faculty, to make certain all students are given support, respect, and guidance during their formative years. This club will add to that effort in a positive way.”

Even though the privately funded Catholic School is well within its legal rights to make hiring decisions based on its publically stated Christian beliefs, some Valley High School students want their school district to end a standing agreement that allows Dowling to rent its facilities. Officials with the West Des Moines school district commended the students for being “on the right side of history.”

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. While Indiana’s new religious liberty law generated national attention and sparked outrage among the liberal left and the LGBTQ community, a public school not allowing its facilities to be used or rented by organizations that happen not to support same-sex marriage creates an interesting dilemma. While the intent of the students is to prevent Dowling Catholic from using it’s athletic fields, such a policy would also mean that Republicans couldn’t rent their facilities to hold District Conventions, as has been done in the past, and that school facilities couldn’t be used for Republican presidential caucuses.

A policy that wouldn’t allow a person or organization that publicly supports traditional or Biblical marriage could also mean that a congressman or governor who doesn’t support same-sex marriage also couldn’t rent or use its facilities. The church I attend used to meet every Sunday in a public school gymnasium. Other churches in the Des Moines metro still meet at public school facilities. Such a policy change would have more far-reaching ramifications than just keeping a Catholic high school from using the football field.

PrintValley, a public school, is funded by public tax dollars. And while not all of Dowling’s students live in the West Des Moines School District, there are many parents who live in and pay taxes to the public school district, but who send their kids to Dowling. In essence, a parent who is funding the public schools by paying their property taxes could see their kids be forbidden to use the facilities that they helped build and upkeep.

Religious liberty protections for bakers, photographers, and florists are one thing, but a potential dispute between a public school like Valley and a private school like Dowling Catholic takes the debate to an entirely different level.

Gay marriage proponents have long said that allowing gay marriages would have no impact on religious marriage or religion. In fact, in 2010, One Iowa ran ads following the Varnum decision stating, “This will not change religious marriage, or how each religion defines that. It does protect civil marriage for same-sex couples and protects the freedoms of all committed couples.”

dowlinglogoIf a private Catholic high school can’t rent facilities at a publicly funded venue, such as a school or city owned property, then how long will it really be until the tax exempt status of churches and religious organizations is abolished? What used to be a slippery slope argument suddenly seems to be closer to reality.

While this debate is beginning on the pages of our local newspapers and is being talked about in our local homes and churches, don’t be surprised if it is the U.S. Supreme Court who ultimately decides this issue. In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, that a closely held, for-profit company didn’t have to follow regulations of the Department of Health and Human Services that were in violation of the owners’ religious beliefs.

If public schools are suddenly going to limit who and what organizations can use their property, then why should parents who choose to send their children to a religious school be forced to pay for a public school they do not use and are not even allowed to use?

I think the West Des Moines school board, parents, and students really need to stop and think about what they are really doing here. Once again, instead of tolerance, people are actually advocating intolerance.   They are openly advocating for religious discrimination. I also think it would be a good teaching moment for the history and government instructors at Valley High School to remind the students about the free speech and free exercise provisions of the First Amendment.