Sarah Jane Weaver
New York City

On the west coast a Catholic bishop wants all parochial teachers to sign an orthodoxy pledge as a condition of employment. On the east coast, a group of ultra-Orthodox Jewish business owners are under fire for asking customers to dress modestly.

Both cases pose some interesting religious liberty and freedom of conscience questions.

The Santa Rose Catholic Diocese is requiring 200 schoolteachers — whether Catholic or not — to sign a contract addendum that says they "agree that it is my duty, to the best of my ability, to believe, teach/administer and live in accord with what the Catholic Church holds and professes."

Among those teachings, according to the 400-word addendum, is rejecting "modern errors" that "gravely offend human dignity," including "but not limited to" contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage and euthanasia.

Teachers must also agree to be a model of Catholic living.

"That means abiding by the Ten Commandments, going to church every Sunday and heeding God's words in thought, deed and intentions," according the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

The National Catholic Reporter said reaction to the requirement by Bishop Robert Vasa has been mixed among residents and educators.

"Letters to the editor in Santa Rosa's newspaper ... have been running about 3-to-1 in opposition to the document. Critics say the bishop has overstepped his authority, encroached on freedom of conscience, and forced some educators into a position of signing a fiat they find troubling or else lose their jobs.

"Supporters say they appreciate what they describe as Vasa's effort to make church teaching clear and uncompromising."

On Friday, the deadline for signing the contract, the NCR reported that a small group of parishioners purchased a full-page ad in their local paper supporting a person's right to follow his or her conscience. The ad includes selections from the Second Vatican Council's "Declaration on Religious Freedom, which support the primacy of conscience.

Vasa, reportedly pushing a stricter interpretation of doctrine than Santa Rosa Catholics are accustomed to, did back off his demand for 11 teachers at one school. The Press Democrat reported Friday that Vasa called the move a private matter and declined to explain the reason behind his accommodation.

On the opposite coast, there are no exceptions to the dress code of several businesses in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Brooklyn.

The Religion News Service reported that the New York City Commission on Human Rights claims the businesses violated human rights law by posting signs that read: “No shorts, no barefoot, no sleeveless, no low-cut neckline allowed in this store.”

The report says the commission finds the dress code discriminatory against women, although both ultra-Orthodox men and women are expected to abide by such a dress code at all times.

Indeed, Devora Allon, the attorney representing the businessmen, insisted that the signs are gender neutral with no discriminatory intent.

“No customer has ever been denied service at the stores on the basis of how he or she dressed,” Allon said, according to RNS.

The case is scheduled for trial, June 4-5, Allon said.

Writing for the non-partisan American Interest, Peter Berger contends both Bishop Vasa and the Jewish business owners have a constitutional right to impose their religious beliefs on the teachers or customers.

Although the teachers may argue Bishop Vasa is not upholding Catholic teaching on conscience, Berger says "being employed by a Catholic school is not a civil right, and a church has the right to decide whom to employ in any of its institutions, even if the criteria for the decision seem unduly coercive to an outsider.

"This is an important difference: At the end point of a series of refusals by the Brooklyn store owners, the City of New York can throw them in jail. Bishop Vasa has no jail at his disposal. Mayor Bloomberg has an advantage over the bishop in this — and thus poses the more serious threat."

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