We turn now to the suburbs of Philadelphia. Waldron Mercy Academy is a private school in Merion Station which takes children all the way from daycare at three months through eighth grade. It is not cheap—tuition for grades one through eight is $13,250 per year. Its campus sits nestled around an old convent in an upscale suburb and boasts all the bells and whistles. It has a long, low stone wall surrounding green lawns and athletic fields. In 2009 it was designated a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence. It boasts a diverse student body, cataloguing gender, race, and ethnic make-up down to the tenth of a percent. Seriously: School administrators want you to know that 0.6 percent of the students are Muslim and 0.2 percent are Armenian Apostolic.
The only problem with Waldron Mercy is that the school is Catholic.
You might miss that from the “Who We Are” section of its website, where Waldron Mercy mentions “Faith” and talks obliquely about “Christian values” and the “charism of Mercy.” But the school doesn’t explicitly say, right there, that it’s Catholic; there’s no crucifix. And just to make sure you don’t get the wrong idea about what sort of “Christian values” they’re into, the school does explicitly say it teaches children “to serve not merely out of charity, but from a developing sense of social justice.”
But Catholic it is, and last week, as the radioactive fallout from the Obergefell ruling was settling across the country, Waldron Mercy fired its director of religious education, Margie Winters.
Winters had married her lesbian partner in Massachusetts in 2007. From 1996 until 2014, the state of Pennsylvania had in place a statutory ban on same-sex marriage. But in 2014 a federal district court ruled this statute unconstitutional, and Obergefell put an end to any hope that the state might once again decide its own laws. And so Waldron Mercy decided that it could not be Catholic and have a director of religious education for its students living in direct contravention of the church’s teachings.
What is most interesting about the case of Waldron Mercy, however, isn’t the firing of its director of religious ed—it’s the response of a local Democratic politician.
In 2010, Lower Merion Township passed an ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. The ordinance provided an exception for religious organizations, but this exception had its own exception: Religious organizations that are supported “in whole or in part by governmental appropriations” would not be allowed to discriminate. And so Democratic state senator Daylin Leach, who represents Merion, pointed out to the Philadelphia Inquirer that Waldron Mercy has gotten more than $270,000 in the last two years from the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit program, and that 70 students have attended since 2005 under a similar state program, the Educational Improvement Tax Credit.
“So they’ve received a good bit of money from the State of Pennsylvania,” Leach noted ominously. The Inquirer concluded, “[Leach] said that state money might override the religious exemption for the township ordinance.” We shall see.
There’s a good reason why we, along with so many others, are concerned about religious freedom after Obergefell. Religious organizations—ranging from para-church groups and charities to schools, and even to churches themselves—are going to be, and in some cases already have been, targeted by lawmakers and government agencies. Here’s a partial catalogue:
* Any religious organization that requires a government license to operate—such as an adoption agency or hospital—may find its existence in jeopardy. The case study here is the Catholic Charities adoption service in Boston. After the Massachusetts Supreme Court decreed a right to gay marriage in the state, Catholic Charities announced it would not place children with same-sex couples. The state then refused to renew the group’s license, claiming that Catholic Charities was engaged in discriminatory behavior. Without a license, the archdiocese of Boston was forced to shut down its adoption services.