Publicity about laws and legal rulings about same-sex marriage, transgender bathrooms and regulations requiring contraceptives to be covered by insurance are challenging the core beliefs of some local religious nonprofit organizations.
The legislative and legal decisions leave religious charities in a bind: If they don’t comply, their tax-exempt nonprofit status could end. But complying with state and federal law could go against the organization’s core beliefs. So how are local nonprofits reacting to changes in legal status for same-sex couples and contraceptive requirements? How are they responding to rules that require protections for transgender people?
Last June, in a landmark 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage.
In North Carolina, legislators identified protected classes of citizens, but excluded transgender and homosexual people. The state’s new law requires people to use bathrooms and locker rooms based on their anatomy at birth, not by their gender identity. While Colorado’s 2008 anti-discrimination law expanded protections for transgender people, North Carolina’s actions drew national attention and a lot of controversy. Once again raising questions in Colorado.
Denver-based Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic organization, sued the federal government to challenge new rules created by the federal government as a result of the Affordable Care Act. The regulations require employers to provide insurance that covers preventive health services for women, which includes contraception. However, the Roman Catholic Church does not support birth control. While the federal rules exempted “religious employers,” religious schools, hospitals or charities were not included in the exemption. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case, but haven’t announced a decision.
A Colorado Springs attorney devised a system to help religious nonprofits draft responses to the new legislation that remain in line with their beliefs.
Eric Kniffin of Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie says the “mission audit” is designed to help groups understand its core beliefs while figuring out how to meld those beliefs with new laws.
“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,” said Keith Jones, media relations manager for the firm.
Kniffin’s clients often ask him how the new laws might affect their staff, funding and community interactions.
“They feel like they’re forced to choose,” he said. “Do I give up my calling? Do I compromise my convictions?”
The audit has three components: an in-depth interview with the client, identifying challenges and the action plan.
The goal is to help nonprofits think through who they are and why they believe in their missions, Kniffin said.
The first step includes a comprehensive review of the nonprofit’s founding, current documents and internal policies to determine how it communicates its religious identity and convictions, both internally and externally.
The next step identifies challenges the organization faces if they choose not to follow the laws — a loss of nonprofit status, government funding or accreditation.
“If a nonprofit is heavily dependent on government grants, they may be forced to exit those funding sources … they may need to start planning for how to adjust to that environment, like setting aside money or looking for additional sources,” Kniffin said.
Organizations can get around the same-sex marriage or other anti-discrimination rules by not charging fees for groups or events that want to use their facilities or by coming up with alternative solutions that accommodate everyone.
“That’s legal,” he said. “The laws generally affect you only if you charge a fee. It is legal to charge a modest clean-up fee.”
For example, if a homeless shelter founded on religious principles encounters a transgender homeless person, the shelter could provide a hotel voucher. It’s another way to accommodate the person’s needs, Kniffin said.
Some nonprofits are choosing not to comment about the new regulations.
Chris Valentine, director of marketing and communications for Penrose-St. Francis Health Services, responded to questions with an email message: “Thanks for reaching out to us for comment,” he said. “We recognize that people are very passionate about the topics you brought up. We would prefer to focus on the delivery of health care in the community.”
Other nonprofits fight for the equal rights of groups they see as disenfranchised.
“We absolutely believe in upholding equality for all,” said Deb Walker, Citizens Project executive director. “We think the law pretty clearly protects churches and also the exercise of religion. When your exercise of religion begins to impinge on another person’s liberty,” Citizens Project will oppose it,” Walker said. “We have deep issues of equality, and we’re talking about toilets …”
A new nonprofit, Springs Equality was formed to support the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community, said Shari Zabel, a transgender woman and political activist who is senior adviser to the organization. She says the group opposes any suggested legal changes that they view as discriminatory.
If the Colorado legislature approved similar legislation to North Carolina’s, it might cost the state economy billions of dollars in federal funding for transportation and education, she said. Some businesses would choose to leave — as they have in North Carolina — and some artists, musicians and other groups might cancel their appearances.
But not all religious nonprofits worry about the connection between the law and their missions.
Catholic Charities of Central Colorado operates the Marian House Soup Kitchen in Colorado Springs. Catholic Charities complies with the law, said Andy Barton, president and CEO.
“For us, it really hasn’t been an issue,” he said. “We don’t ask the question because we can’t. At the end of the day, our goal is to make sure that we have the best people working to serve the poor and vulnerable in the community.”