This week, at its annual con­fer­ence in Bal­ti­more, the US Con­fer­ence of Catholic Bish­ops asserted that “reli­gious lib­erty” is under assault.

The con­fer­ence pulled together issues from the fed­eral level and var­i­ous states. For instance, in Illi­nois, after 40 years of coop­er­a­tion, gov­ern­ment offi­cials stopped work­ing with Catholic Char­i­ties on adop­tions and foster-care place­ments because the agency refused to rec­og­nize a new civil union law. Bish­ops are suing the state, claim­ing that deny­ing funds because of the reli­gious beliefs of the church is imper­mis­si­ble. In New York, the Catholic church has com­plained that the reli­gious exemp­tion to gay-marriage laws is too weak.

On health care, the Catholic Church has argued that there should be a broader exemp­tion to the fed­eral man­date that pri­vate insur­ers pay for con­tra­cep­tion. The church is also fight­ing the Health and Human Ser­vices Department’s recent denial of renewal of finan­cial aid for their anti-human traf­fick­ing work. The ACLU had filed suit oppos­ing gov­ern­ment funds to anti-human traf­fick­ing groups that “impose reli­giously based restric­tions on repro­duc­tive health ser­vices,” claim­ing that many of the women who are vic­tims of rape and forced pros­ti­tu­tion are in need of repro­duc­tive health services.

This is com­ing on the heels of recent attempts by the church to pres­sure Catholic politi­cians to vote in line with church teach­ings.
Each year, Catholic char­i­ties across the nation receive hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in fed­eral fund­ing, which have increased over the years, and the bat­tle for “reli­gious lib­erty” is about who gets to con­trol the way that the tax dol­lars are spent.

In the past, Catholic pub­lic pol­icy dis­cus­sion cov­ered a broad range of issues rang­ing from immi­gra­tion and work­ers’ rights to nuclear pro­lif­er­a­tion. Today, the focus has nar­rowed to the issues of abor­tion and gay rights.

The con­fer­ence has formed a new “reli­gious lib­erty” com­mit­tee, the Ad Hoc Com­mit­tee for Reli­gious Lib­erty and is hir­ing another attor­ney and lob­by­ist to address “reli­gious lib­erty and mar­riage issues” on Capi­tol Hill. The Com­mit­tee is also plan­ning to lobby against a Con­gres­sional repeal of the Defense of Mar­riage Act and the military’s repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Sadly, as part of this change in focus, the term “reli­gious lib­erty” is being rede­fined away from pro­tect­ing the rights to speak, believe, and prac­tice reli­gion. Instead, “reli­gious lib­erty” is appar­ently the right to receive gov­ern­ment money with­out restrictions.

And we can­not ignore the fact that other Amer­i­cans have sin­cere reli­gious dis­agree­ment with the posi­tions being pro­moted by the bish­ops. Are the rights of con­science of those who take a dif­fer­ent stance on the dis­puted issues to be dis­missed as illegitimate?

To be sure, these are not easy ques­tions to answer. Cer­tainly insti­tu­tions should not be com­pelled to act against their reli­gious mis­sion. Yet, the state does not have an implicit oblig­a­tion to fund them. The Church can assert its right speak in the the pub­lic square, but it should not assume power it does not have in order to force the rest of soci­ety to fol­low its lead.

In 1773, a Bap­tist min­is­ter in New Eng­land observed that where “church and state are sep­a­rate, the effects are happy, and they do not at all inter­fere with each other: but where they have been con­founded together, no tongue nor pen can fully describe the mis­chiefs that have ensued.”

That sep­a­ra­tion should not be torn down in the name of reli­gious lib­erty. I hope that the US Con­fer­ence of Catholic Bish­ops will keep this in mind as it begins its new chap­ter of advo­cacy in Con­gress, and rec­og­nize that they are not the arbiters of moral­ity in the nation, but rather are one of many orga­ni­za­tions rep­re­sent­ing the broad spec­trum of belief and non-belief in the United States.

(Click here to read Arch­bishop William T. Lori’s speech at the US Con­fer­ence of Catholic Bish­ops.)

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2 Comments

  1. Bill Cork says:

    In the past, Catholic pub­lic pol­icy dis­cus­sion cov­ered a broad range of issues rang­ing from immi­gra­tion and work­ers’ rights to nuclear pro­lif­er­a­tion. Today, the focus has nar­rowed to the issues of abor­tion and gay rights.”

    This is not true, as a glimpse of the web­page of the USCCB or any state Catholic Con­fer­ence will eas­ily demonstrate.

    And no, this is not just about church enti­ties receiv­ing pub­lic mon­eys. It is about Catholic char­i­ties being allowed to stay in the adop­tion busi­ness. It is about church insti­tu­tions being able to let church teach­ings guide what ser­vices are pro­vided under health insur­ance plans. It is about church hos­pi­tals being able to fol­low church teach­ing and not per­form abortions.

    Impor­tant issues were dis­cussed in the recent hear­ings on reli­gious lib­erty. For some rea­son, no Seventh-day Adven­tists par­tic­i­pated. Are we going to sit by and be silent when oth­ers lib­er­ties are threat­ened, and speak only when issues as we define them are in the pub­lic forum? 

    Why use scare quotes around “reli­gious lib­erty”? Do you think Catholic phar­ma­cists should be required to fill pre­scrip­tions for abortafacients–that they shouldn’t be included under health care worker con­science clauses? Do you think Chris­t­ian adop­tion agen­cies should be required to pro­vide chil­dren for homo­sex­ual cou­ples? Do you think Chris­t­ian col­leges should not be con­sid­ered reli­gious insti­tu­tions? Do you think Chris­t­ian hos­pi­tals should be forced to pro­vide abor­tion and ster­il­iza­tion ser­vices? These are the real issues raised recently.
    Yes, in a small way, some of the con­cerns you raise may apply to some of the issues. If you don’t want to fol­low state rules, don’t accept state money. But when the state rules are chang­ing because of  attempts to under­mine def­i­n­i­tions of mar­riage and the fam­ily, should Chris­tians sit by silently? Do they not have the lib­erty to speak out?

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