Bishops Address Threats to Religious Liberty
by David Gibson
Threats to religious liberty have been mounting in the United States, Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., said Sept. 30 in a homily for a Red Mass celebrated at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, N.J. Bishop Lori chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ newly created Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty.
Issues surrounding same-sex marriage rank among the U.S. bishops’ key religious-liberty concerns today. Addressing members of the legal profession during the Newark Mass, Bishop Lori said that laws in some states today “attempt to compel the church to support same-sex marriage in its hiring practices and in the benefits it gives to employees.”
Citing other religious-liberty concerns, he said for example that “there are increasing demands that Catholic relief agencies provide access to so-called ‘reproductive services’ – including abortion – as a condition for receiving government grants on an equal footing with other agencies.”
Bishop Lori said that “over time, protections for the free and robust practice of the Catholic faith have eroded.”
Lawyers, judges and other members of the legal profession were urged by Bishop Lori to remind their colleagues, “in the words of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, that ‘the rights of man [come] not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.’”
Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, announced the ad hoc committee’s establishment at the end of September. He said the U.S. bishops left their national meeting near Seattle in June “with a palpable sense of unity and commitment … regarding the need we face to safeguard religious liberty inherent in the dignity of the human person.”
In a Sept. 29 letter to all U.S. bishops, Archbishop Dolan said “an increasing number of federal government programs or policies that would infringe upon the right of conscience of people of faith or otherwise harm the foundational principle of religious liberty” show that this basic right “is now increasingly and in unprecedented ways under assault.”
The committee will begin work immediately. “We cannot waste time in this vital area,” Archbishop Dolan said. To illustrate the urgency of the matter, he listed “new threats to religious liberty that have arisen” since the bishops’ June meeting.
For example, the U.S. Department of Justice “has ratcheted up its attack on the Defense of Marriage Act as an act of bigotry,” Archbishop Dolan commented. He said that while the department stopped defending the Defense of Marriage Act against constitutional challenges last March, in July it “started filing briefs actively attacking” the act’s constitutionality, “claiming that supporters of the law could only have been motivated by bias and prejudice.”
After the February announcement that the Justice Department no longer would defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act, Archbishop Dolan said that “unjust discrimination against any person is always wrong.” But he said the act does not represent unjust discrimination; it “merely affirms and protects the time-tested and unalterable meaning of marriage.”
But Archbishop Dolan’s Sept. 29 letter said that “if the label of ‘bigot’ sticks to us – especially in court – because of our teaching on marriage, we’ll have church-state conflicts for years to come.”
The 15-year-old Defense of Marriage Act prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages and denies federal marriage benefits to same-sex couples.
In the archbishop’s own state of New York, a bill legalizing same-sex marriage was signed into law in June. Archbishop Dolan’s letter said this law includes “only a very narrow religious exemption” and that county clerks already “face legal action for refusing to participate in same-sex unions.”
Moreover, “gay rights advocates are publicly emphasizing how little religious freedom protection people and groups will enjoy under the new law,” he said.
Among other current threats to religious liberty, Archbishop Dolan pointed to regulations the federal Department of Health and Human Services issued “that would mandate the coverage of contraception (including abortifacients) and sterilization in all private health insurance plans.”
The regulations include “an exception for certain religious employers,” but Archbishop Dolan wrote, “To borrow from Sister Carol Keehan, DC, president of the Catholic Health Association, it would cover only the ‘parish housekeeper.’”
He added, “The exception does nothing to protect insurers or individuals with religious or moral objections to the mandate.”
Archbishop Dolan explained that the new committee “will work closely with national organizations, charities, ecumenical and interreligious partners and scholars to form a united and forceful front in defense of religious freedom.”
The general secretary of the national bishops’ conference, Msgr. Ronny Jenkins, talked about the committee in a homily Oct. 3 for a Red Mass in Wilmington, Del. Threats to religious liberty today “stem from all branches of government,” he said.
These threats, Msgr. Jenkins said, “strike at fundamental issues to the exercise of our faith, including conscience protections for charitable workers, the right of churches to employ ministers of their own choosing and the redefinition of ancient institutions revered by all religions such as marriage.”
But he said that “perhaps of even more concern than the immediate result of any legislative, executive or judicial act is the long-term effect that awaits this country’s proud and remarkable history of religious freedom, not merely as a right to worship but also a right (and we would add obligation) to take an active and proper place in the public square of our country.”
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.