Culture Friday – Religious liberty at the EEOC

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: It’s Friday, March 12th, 2021. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It.

Good morning, I’m Myrna Brown.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

This story came in late last Friday, the firing of the general counsel of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 

I realize that might sound to you like inside-baseball given that something like 9 million people work for the federal government. 

But this was a key position with implications for religious freedom. 

Sharon Fast Gustafson had built a career on fighting job discrimination and in her role with the federal government, she’d been an effective advocate for workers who found themselves victims of religious discrimination. And she advocated without favor: Gustafson supported Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs.

A word about the EEOC. The president appoints commissioners and the general counsel, but it’s designed to have a bipartisan composition. Of the five members, three are supposed to be from the president’s party and the other two from the minority party.

Commission appointments are five-year terms, the general counsel a four-year term. By cutting short the term of the general counsel, that raises concerns about the independence of the agency.

The president stated no reason for firing Gustafson. A Republican-appointed EEOC commissioner, though, ventured a guess.

BROWN: Right. Commissioner Andrea Lucas issued a sharply worded statement about the firing. Quoting here:

“In the days leading up to the President’s decision to fire Ms. Gust-of-sun, a report and related materials dealing with religious discrimination were removed from the EEOC’s website shortly after inauguration. Sharon Gustafson led the work group that produced that report.”

Lucas’s letter warns that she is, quoting again, “deeply concerned that today, religious liberty has become a disfavored or second-class right in many areas of our society and culture.” And she added that the firing of Gustafson proves her point.

EICHER: It’s Culture Friday and so let’s welcome John Stonestreet, president of the Colson Center and host of the Breakpoint podcast. John, good morning.


EICHER: Did you see this story, John? It didn’t get a lot of attention, but it sure seems ominous.

STONESTREET: I did. And it does seem ominous and the reason it didn’t get a lot of attention is because of all of the other ways in which this administration has launched out in prioritizing other freedoms other than religious liberty. We have just one example after another of basically this administration—both in domestic and foreign policy—continuing what happened in the last term of President Obama’s administration, which is elevating LGBTQ rights to a privileged position, maybe above everything else in both domestic and foreign policy. And so that is just kind of been par for the course so far for the Biden administration so that pendulum swing has come back pretty fast. 

The challenge here is that in almost every area the elevation of LGBTQ rights means the compromise of religious freedoms. I think that’s why so many conservatives—myself included—reacted so strongly to the choices that were being put forth to lead, for example, the Department of Health and Human Services. We’re all old enough to remember just how controversial that department was under the Obama administration, and how it pitted so-called sexual freedoms in some way or another against religious freedoms. 

Now, these department heads, these appointments, they change from administration to administration. Not all of them, but many of them. And this is one that’s kind of gone both ways. But the removal of the report, the prioritization of sexual freedoms, LGBTQ rights, elevating them in foreign and domestic policy, it puts them on a collision course with religious liberty. Something that as Commissioner Lucas’ letter put it is often seen as a second-class right. In fact, it’s even worse than that. In some parts of our culture, it’s seen as something bad. Religious freedom’s not even seen as something good. It’s seen as a so-called license to discriminate. So getting it out of the way in a way, it doesn’t seem to be coincidental to all the other moves that the administration is making.

EICHER: What I was going to add here, John, is this is a serious individual. She wasn’t an ideologue. She was a professional anti-discrimination attorney. That’s what she specialized in. And you and I have talked about this in the past, about the importance of religious freedom for all. And that seemed to be her emphasis. She wasn’t trying to come in and just be the voice of the Christians. She worked with a wide array of religious groups—Muslim groups and Sikh groups and Hindu groups, Jews, and Christians. Everybody. Religious freedom for all, which is kind of exactly what you said that needs to be the approach.

STONESTREET: Well, it is and it’s not only religious freedom for all. It’s religious freedom in its fullness. And that’s the other thing that she seemed to really understand and reflect in her work is not just the rights of people from these various faiths to believe whatever they want, but to actually live in accordance with those beliefs. That’s the part where it interferes with the new sexual orthodoxy and the elevation of sexual minorities. That’s where the rub comes in. That’s where the conflict comes in. And she seemed to get that part of religious liberty. That it was a fundamental good, that it should apply to everyone, that it should be a grounding for which people could actually not only believe in the privacy of their own hearts or their own heads or their own houses of worship or their own homes. But actually in the public square as they ordered their public lives.

BROWN: I want to talk about an aspect of the big Covid bill that just passed. Another little reported story: there’s money in that bill that pro-lifers say will end up funding abortion and that breaks with a longstanding policy of the government, not to directly fund abortion.

The group Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden issued a statement castigating President Biden. And here’s some of the language:

“As pro-life leaders in the evangelical community, we publicly supported President Biden’s candidacy with the understanding that there would be engagement [with] us on the issue of abortion and particularly the Hyde Amendment… We feel used and betrayed.”

Well, John, you know “told you so” seems just too sophomoric” and “It’s ok, we all make mistakes” not sure that is quite appropriate either. I’ve heard both sentiments expressed. As Christians, what should our response be to these fellow Christians?

STONESTREET: Oh, you took the words out of my mouth. I mean, the temptation to say, “Told you so,” is so strong. And to say that we all make mistakes implies a level of naivete that this particular group shouldn’t have had. 

So, why they thought that there would be some level of engagement, I’m not sure. Maybe there’s some information that the rest of us just really aren’t aware of because there was — unless there was a private email or a memo or a carrier pigeon that had sent a note, there literally was no indication on any level that they would have any sort of say to advance a pro-life cause at any point in this administration, in any department, at any level. 

The campaign very clearly crawled into bed with Planned Parenthood and everyone else. The need that they had to contrast this campaign with what President Trump had done with various pro-life policies, the various department heads that were going to be rolled out and put in charge. There was no indication whatsoever that they should have any different expectations. So, I was a little confused by the comment. I appreciate these individuals by and large, but I was a little lost about why they were taken by surprise.

EICHER: John, speaking of pro-life, the state of Arkansas approved full protections for the unborn this week. A total abortion ban—no exceptions—only life of the mother. I’ll note that the National Right to Life Committee had expressed concerns, worrying that in the legal challenge, it might be a bit much for even a more favorable Supreme Court. It might backfire and prompt the court to uphold Roe versus Wade instead of sending up more moderate approach. For example, the heartbeat law South Carolina approved last month. It draws the abortion line at the stage of an unborn child’s development where medical equipment can detect a heartbeat. So 6-to-8 weeks instead of full protection from the moment of conception. So a little strategizing here. Any thoughts on the strategy?

STONESTREET: There’s a legal strategy and a cultural strategy. And the legal strategy has to do not only with getting Roe overturned, but with returning some level of autonomy to this issue of the states. So, for different states to put out different bills that basically reflect their elected officials and the constituency I think is absolutely OK. 

But also on the legal strategy as it has to do with specifically Roe v. Wade, it’s a pretty kind of fascinating sort of thing to watch bills or legislation that didn’t have a chance 10 years ago have a chance today. And that includes on the state level and these are actually going to be things that can be test cases for Roe v. Wade. I mean what an interesting, interesting thing here. So I say let’s go with it. 

On a cultural level, I think there are times that the law can lead culture or can instruct culture. We saw that, for example, with civil-rights legislation in the south. And I think this at least confronts those who are ambiguous on abortion with an idea that abortion itself is immoral to a level that it should be outlawed. So I’m OK with that instructive role that this legislation can play as well. 

Now, hopefully we don’t leave all the education up to a disembodied piece of legislation. We need to engage that instruction ourselves. But, yeah, listen, I’m all for this. And I’m curious. I’m curious what this Supreme Court is going to do. It’s a different Supreme Court. We haven’t had anything like this tested by this particular court. So, I think it’s going to be interesting to watch and at the very least it seems like states are really trying to create this elbow room from the federal government and say, look, on this issue we should be the ones in charge. So, good for them and I think we’re going to see more and even more creative attempts on a state level.

BROWN: John Stonestreet is president of the Colson Center and host of the Breakpoint podcast.

EICHER: Thank you John.

STONESTREET: Thank you both.

(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) President Joe Biden signs the American Rescue Plan, a coronavirus relief package, in the Oval Office of the White House, Thursday, March 11, 2021, in Washington. 

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