The Bishops of the Maryland Catholic Conference recently issued a a document: The Most Sacred of All Property: Religious Freedom and the People of Maryland. The Catholic Bishops of the United States are also discussing the erosion of Religious Liberty at their meeting. The matter is becoming increasingly serious, not only for Catholics, but for peoples of all faith, especially other Christians.
When I have discussed this matter here on the blog before I am surprised a bit a the reaction. While a few accept the invitation to be alert and concerned, many have commented that such notions are alarmist and exaggerated, arguing that Constitutional Law is clear and there is no real threat. While I expect this sort of response from more secular readers here, I do not expect it of Catholic readers and find it surprising.
The Church is already spending increasing time and money battling many attacks on religious liberty, as we or the programs we run are sued for not complying to secular and neopagan civil norms demanding we provide abortions services and contraception, in our hospitals and health plans, and facilitate Gay adoptions, etc. We win some the suits and lose others.
But here is the point, our religious liberty is steadily eroding. Religious exemptions to newly imposed secular norms are being taken away, or interpreted so narrowly that no one can comply. This is becoming a serious matter and will have a larger effect on our ability to evangelize as well as care for the poor, run school, hospitals and even staff parishes. Pay attention. This is becoming a serious problem.
Before giving a few excerpts from the Bishop’s Document, lets review a few things that were in the news just this week.
1. CNA Reports Illinois Dioceses Must End Adoption Services: Bishops in three Illinois dioceses announced Nov. 14 that they have dropped their lawsuit against the state and will shut down their adoption and foster care programs, after a civil union law required them to provide their services to same-sex couples.
“The decision not to pursue further appeals was reached with great reluctance, but was necessitated by the fact that the State of Illinois has made it financially impossible for our agencies to continue to provide these services,” said Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Bishop Edward K. Braxton of Belleville, and Bishop R. Daniel Conlon of Joliet. …
[This demonstrates that] legislators promising ‘religious protection’ in same sex marriage and civil union laws may not be able to deliver on those promises.
Robert Gilligan, executive director of the Illinois Catholic Conference, summarized what he believes to be the underlying problem in remarks to CNA on Nov. 11. What “you’re seeing at the state level in Illinois, what you’re seeing at the national level in Washington, D.C., is a consistent promulgation of policies and laws that are making it very difficult for faith-based agencies that believe that marriage is between one man and one woman,” Gilligan said…..
2. Michael Gerson Writing in the Washington Post Yesterday in the Opinion Pages [President] Obama Turns his Back on Catholics notes that Catholics no longer need apply for grants to serve the poor:
….The conscience protections of Catholics are under assault, particularly by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
[In 2008] The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts brought suit against the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), seeking to eliminate a grant to programs that aid victims of human trafficking. Because Catholic programs don’t refer for abortions, the ACLU alleged that public support amounts to the establishment of religion.
The Obama Justice Department defended the grant in court. But last month, HHS abruptly ended the funding.
The main victims of this assault are not bishops but the poor and vulnerable. USCCB-sponsored human trafficking programs, for example, provide employment assistance, legal services, child care and medical screening. 
But because case managers won’t refer for abortions, HHS would rather see these programs shut down in favor of less effective alternatives. This form of anti-religious extremism counts casualties. 
3. Gerson also reports in the same article that pro-lifers need not apply:
It is now standard procedure in the Obama administration to deny funding to some Catholic programs based solely on their pro-life beliefs. 
4. In terms of the Obama Healthcare Legislation Gerson writes:
Broadly applied, the [new] HHS [Healthcare] policy would amount to systemic anti-Catholic bias in government programs…..HHS has drawn conscience protections so narrowly that Catholic colleges, universities and hospitals — any Catholic institution that employs and serves non-Catholics — will be required to offer health coverage that includes contraception and drugs that cause abortion. 
In global health grants, new language is appearing that requires the integration of family planning and “reproductive health” services, effectively barring the participation of Catholic institutions. 
Gerson goes on to wonder: How will the White House respond? More specifically, how will the Catholic chief of staff and America’s first Catholic vice president respond? They gave up their own adherence to Catholic teaching on abortion long ago. But are they really prepared to betray their co-religionists who still hold these beliefs? 
Drip, drip, drip.
The pro-abortion lobby, the homosexual rights activists and the secularists in general had all marched into town under the banner of tolerance, freedom of conscience, and “choice.” It is clear enough that they and/or their advocates in the Government have no interest in any of these supposed values, and the lie of their “tolerance” is on full display.
The message is increasingly clear: Comply or leave the public square. And if we do not succeed in forcing you to comply the first time, we will continue to sue you and hail you into court with our well funded legal teams, and make you spend all your money and time defending our attacks until you have to leave, simply from financial exhaustion.
Some Catholics argue with me, “We shouldn’t depend on any government money.” Perhaps, but that is beside the point. We are no less deserving of grants because of our faith than some secular or pro-abortion group, or some pro-homosexual group. Further, this erosion is not simply about obtaining grants. It is about Government, Federal, State and local, trying to force us to provide healthcare plans with anti-life, anti-traditional family agenda. There are also increasing attempts to insist on who we must hire and what we must fund and recognize and even how we structure our parishes.
Pay careful attention: drip, drip, drip. You may say, “It’s just a drip” but the water is collecting and getting deeper.
More recent threats to religious liberty are listed in the document just below.
To conclude, here are some excerpts from the Maryland Bishop’s Conference document The Most Sacred of All Property: Religious Freedom and the People of Maryland.
- Religious freedom is not merely a civil right afforded us by our government, but, more fundamentally, it is a natural right due each person because of his or her human dignity….Each person is made in the image and likeness of God….Christ came to convince, not to compel. He offers us His love but He does not force us to accept it. The Lord respects our freedom to accept Him or to reject Him; so too must government and society.
- Religious freedom…is also integral to the establishment of a good and just society. Individuals who are free to exercise religious liberty are free to live out their faith in service to others and to build up the common good. For example, faith groups and religious organizations often are the largest providers of private social services, including hospitals and health clinics, schools and universities, shelters and food pantries….. Workers’ rights have long been a concern of the religious community in the United States….But perhaps the most striking example of the good fruits of religious liberty was the civil rights movement. In many ways, the civil rights movement was a religious movement.
- Rev. King also explained the proper role of churches in society: “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. . . . It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.”
- Threats: In November 2009 the Baltimore City Council passed a bill regulating the speech of pro-life centers by requiring them to post a sign listing services they do not provide (abortion and contraception) or face a daily fine. The Montgomery County Council soon approved a similar regulation. The Baltimore ordinance has been declared unconstitutional by a federal court…[but] Even as courts overturn these laws, they place a huge time and financial burden on these charitable organizations and are a distraction from their mission.
- Threats: 600 Catholic hospitals are finding themselves under increased scrutiny for providing care in accordance with their – our – religious beliefs. The American Civil Liberties Union has asked the federal government to investigate Catholic hospitals for declining to provide abortion and emergency contraception. The ACLU alleges that Catholic hospitals are violating federal law by adhering to their religious beliefs.
- Threats: the [DC City Government] informed Catholic Charities that it would no longer be an eligible foster care and adoption partner. The reason? Because, as a Catholic organization, Catholic Charities was devoted to placing children in homes with both a mother and a father. Moreover, when District residents appealed to bring the issue of marriage before voters so that they could have a voice in the debate, their request was repeatedly denied by the D.C. Board of Elections.
- Threats: Sadly, there has been a growing trend of government intrusion into the institutional and administrative life of the Church. One of the most alarming illustrations of this trend occurred in 2009, when a bill was introduced in the Connecticut legislature that would have allowed the state of Connecticut to mandate the structure and organization of Catholic parishes (and only Catholic parishes; it applied to no other denominations). The measure, which ultimately failed, would have removed many administrative and pastoral responsibilities from the pastor and placed them instead in the hands of committees whose membership was defined by the state legislature.
- In closing… Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religious belief. No one should be subject to coercion because of those beliefs…..Society as a whole benefits when all citizens in our pluralistic democracy – including religious citizens and institutions – remain free to participate in public life and to do so in accordance with their sincerely held beliefs.