Nearly a decade ago, Archbishop Charles Chaput warned religious believers to prepare for the “Next America.” He predicted that in the not-too-distant future, government would target religious people and institutions, either forcing them to violate their beliefs or pushing them out of the public square. One midwestern Catholic school now fears that future has arrived—and it’s fighting back to protect its religious liberty.
The Lyceum, a classical school in South Euclid, Ohio, is challenging a city ordinance that would force the school to violate Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality. The city’s measure, which passed one year ago this month, bans any “differential treatment” in employment based on “gender identity or expression” or “sexual orientation.” But the Lyceum, simply by requiring its faculty and students to adhere to Catholic sexual teaching, and mandating that students use the restroom of their biological sex, runs afoul of this ordinance. As the school argues in its federal lawsuit, this law is a direct assault on its rights protected by the First Amendment.
Introduced in 2017, South Euclid’s ordinance immediately drew attention from both advocates and opponents. The first iterations explicitly included exemptions for religious organizations, but as the debate continued, the City Council deleted the exemption. The final version contains no religious protections whatsoever—an omission that the city’s community services director said would make South Euclid a more “welcoming place.”
After a thorough review, school administrators determined that the Lyceum’s admissions policies, employment policies, and facility use policies could violate the new law. For example, the school, which leases its property from the Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic parish, requires all faculty, staff, parents, guardians, and students to adhere to Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality. Its 53 students also must use the restroom of their biological sex. Such policies were non-controversial half a decade ago. They remain widespread at religiously-affiliated schools across Ohio and the rest of America.
The Lyceum’s leaders feared the city was deliberately targeting its religious beliefs, but made a good-faith effort to work with city officials to understand how, if at all, the ordinance affected their policies. The Lyceum asked the city attorney whether the ordinance covered the school. The city failed to respond. The city also ignored a public records request—violating state law in the process—seeking correspondence between the City Council and one of the measure’s most prominent backers, Equality Ohio. Combined with the disappearance of the religious exemption language, the city’s silence spoke loudly.
The Lyceum is now asking a federal court to strike down the ordinance and protect its free exercise of religion. Public officials need to understand that religious liberty and freedom of conscience are inalienable rights, not government privileges granted by exemption. The ramifications of the court’s ruling—one way or another—will be felt far beyond Ohio.
South Euclid’s law is part of a nationwide trend. It’s among the most aggressive of at least 400 similar local laws and 24 state measures. These “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity” laws (“SOGI Laws,” for short) are the result of a coordinated campaign that began in 2015 in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision. As one of the movement’s most prominent backers said at the time, these laws are part of a deliberate strategy to “punish the wicked.”
This vindictive drive can even be seen in Congress, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently introduced the “Equality” Act. Similar to state and local SOGI laws, it would add sexual orientation and gender identity language to federal law, jeopardizing religious institutions that teach or operate in accordance with their faith. Tellingly, it also contains no religious or conscience exemptions, and even prohibits lawsuits seeking relief under other federal laws. Every Democratic senator running for president has co-sponsored the bill.
Such explicit animus toward religious belief might be startling, but it is not surprising. The larger issue concerning the protection of religious liberty is the fact that so few Americans now identify as religious. In 2007, the Pew Research Center found that those who identified as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular” doubled between 1990 to 2007, representing 16 percent of the U.S. adult population. That number jumped to 23 percent by 2014, with the religiously unaffiliated growing from 36.6 million in 2007 to 55.8 million. This downward trend will likely continue, with a Gallup poll published just last week showing the percentage of Americans “who report belonging to a church, synagogue or mosque at an all-time low, averaging 50 [percent].”
As more Americans lose religion, so too may they lose interest in religious liberty. When activists and public officials quietly remove religious exemptions from the laws they seek to pass, they make it clear that their agenda is not about equality or pluralism. Rather, it’s about using the coercive power of government to compel a single viewpoint. They agree with Archbishop Chaput’s argument that religion influences who we are as a nation. As he wrote a decade ago, “What people believe—or don’t believe—about God, helps to shape what they believe about men and women. And what they believe about men and women creates the framework for a nation’s public life.”
Religious groups, from schools to charities, need to prepare for this reality. Their opponents are well-funded, well-staffed, and well-trained, capable of examining every facet of an organization’s corporate structure, policies, and tax returns to find violations of rapidly changing laws. The Lyceum’s case is just one more sign of the new America we’re in—the Next America. It’s no longer a question of when—it’s now.
Josh Holdenried is executive director of the Napa Legal Institute, which provides corporate education and legal resources to Catholic nonprofits. The views expressed are those of the author.