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.