It is the first day back to work for many of us after some delightful holy days, during which we have been able to reflect on eternal and heavenly realities.
And in this New Year we are going to have many blessings but also some important challenges. Among the challenges we will continue to face and must battle are significant and persistent threats to religious liberty. These issues affect not only Catholics, but people of many religious backgrounds. However, the Catholic Church is particularly targeted and threatened because we have stood so vocally and firmly in opposition to many cultural problems in America such as abortion, embryonic stem cell research, the gay rights agenda, gay “marriage,” and so forth.
As the wider American culture continues to move away from biblical teachings and norms, our Catholic adherence to this age-old wisdom has come to be seen by many as obnoxious, and we are considered to be an influence that must be strongly resisted. Rather than understand our concerns as a principled stance rooted in biblical norms that we cannot simply set aside, many in the wider culture, have chosen to describe our stance as bigoted, reactionary, hateful, and broadly intolerant.
As such, many see the repudiation of our religious rights and liberty as righteous and as a vindication of their cultural agenda. But the rejoicing in some circles and the active attempt by some to suppress our religious liberty is short-sighted. For if the government can deny the liberty of one group, all are threatened. If the government can attempt to legally force a large segment of the U.S. population to act contrary to their conscience, no other segment is safe either.
As we have discussed before, the threat to religious liberty is both real and growing. This New Year of 2012 will be a critical year for religious liberty issues since a number of important issues are on the table.
Over the Christmas Octave, all priests in the Archdiocese received a letter of concern from Cardinal Wuerl, which stated in part,
We have all heard much over the past few years about the cause of reforming health care in the United States. Until now, federal law has never prevented Catholic institutions like the Archdiocese of Washington from providing for the needs of their employees with a health plan that is consistent with Catholic moral teachings. However, the Department of Health and Human Services is currently considering adopting regulations that would threaten that freedom.
Under the proposed HHS regulations, virtually all Catholic hospitals, elementary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, and charitable organizations would be required to provide coverage for sterilization procedures and contraception, including drugs that may induce abortions, unless they stop hiring and stop serving non-Catholics.
The letter goes on to reference A Letter from Catholic Leaders and Health Care Professionals, which expresses grave concern that the HHS mandates in the new healthcare legislation are too sweeping and contain no real religious exemption. The letter states, in part,
As written, the [HHS] rule will force Catholic organizations that play a vital role in providing health care and other needed services either to violate their conscience or severely curtail those services. This would harm both religious freedom and access to health care.
The HHS mandate puts many faith-based organizations and individuals in an untenable position. But it also harms society as a whole by undermining a long American tradition of respect for religious liberty and freedom of conscience. In a pluralistic society, our health care system should respect the religious and ethical convictions of all. We ask Congress, the Administration, and our fellow Americans to acknowledge this truth and work with us to reform the law accordingly.
Real and subtle – Please understand that the threats to our religious liberty are very real, but also at times subtle. For much of it is carried out in incremental ways, hidden in the deeper details of legislation and emerging from the interpretations of various judges. As such, it requires the Church and other religious organizations to fight on multiple fronts in a wearying number of often arcane (but very significant) legal minutia.
At some level, the erosion of religious liberty is happening simply due to the repeated quality of the multiple legal maneuvers. The Church and other religious entities may win an individual battle in one case only to face multiple appeals and/or similar battles in other jurisdictions.
Keeping the faithful organized and alert and having the legal and financial resources in place to meet every challenge is difficult, and this is part of the erosive technique of the extreme secularists.
Here are just some recent examples of the kinds of cases and issues that emerge:
- In 2009 the Baltimore City Council passed a bill regulating the speech of pro-life pregnancy centers by requiring them to post a sign listing services they do not provide (abortion and contraception) or face a daily fine. Abortion clinics and other such pro-choice centers faced no similar requirement. (Montgomery County soon approved a similar regulation.) The ordinance has been declared unconstitutional by a federal court, but even though the courts may overturn these sorts of laws, such legal actions place a huge time and financial burden on these charitable organizations and are a distraction from their mission.
- 600 Catholic hospitals are finding themselves under increased scrutiny since they provide care in accordance with Catholic 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 laws by adhering to their religious beliefs.
- The District of Columbia government informed Catholic Charities that it would no longer be an eligible foster care and adoption partner, since as a Catholic organization Catholic Charities was devoted to placing children in homes with both a mother and a father. Moreover, when district residents filed an appeal 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.
- Last November the same thing happened in Illinois. The Church there would have been required to provide adoption services to same-sex couples, based on a civil union law that had been passed. “The decision not to pursue further appeals was reached with great reluctance, but was necessitated by the fact that the State of Illinois made it financially impossible for Catholic agencies to continue to provide these services due to the legal cost of continuing the battle.”
- There has also been a growing trend of government intrusion into the institutional and administrative life of the Church. One of the most disturbing examples of this was 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. Here, too, though we won, that such an intrusive principle could see the light of day was disturbing and fighting it cost the Church and Catholics a huge amount of time and money.
Christians cannot speak of their values publicly? Medina Valley Independent School District allows the class valedictorian to deliver a graduation address. The speech is written by the student and delivered in his or her own name and is a means to provide a personal reflection on what has helped him or her attain success, and to give an encouraging word to fellow students. Last year, valedictorian Angela Hildenbrand, a Bible-believing Christian, was valedictorian. Many knew that Angela would give thanks to God for blessing her work as a student, and that she might offer a prayer. Alleging that hearing a prayer would cause serious and irreparable harm, lawyers at “Americans United for the Separation of Church and State” (AUSCS) filed suit for an agnostic family. A federal judge … issued an order that no prayers could be offered, and also that Angela could not utter certain words in her speech, including the phrase “bow your heads” or the specific words “prayer” or “amen.” The reality is, the judge’s order, not a prayer Angela might offer in her speech, violated the First Amendment. A student is given the stage to speak about her values and priorities and to thank whomever she wishes for helping her succeed in school. Because she’s a private citizen (not a government agent), her speech is protected by the First Amendment Free Speech Clause. For the government (including a judge) to censor her private speech is unconstitutional. On June 4, the Fifth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals granted an emergency motion to reverse the district judge’s ruling.
- Grants denied on Religious Grounds – In 2008 the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts brought suit against the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops 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.
- And again – It is now standard procedure in the Obama administration to deny funding to some Catholic programs based solely on their pro-life beliefs. 
- The latest and most pervasive threat is the new HHS law described above.
As we begin the new year, please take these threats seriously. The extreme secularists presume they can simply wear us down by their repeated and numerous legal maneuverings. And, frankly, they may be right—unless people like you and me are vigilant and unflinching in supporting the Church as she battles these attacks.
And don’t be too sanguine about how we should be willing to endure persecution. We should, but that does not mean we should simply surrender our constitutional rights at the door and let secularists and proponents of the cultural revolution isolate us. We have every constitutional right that any American does and we cannot simply let the Church be silenced by either ignoring the problem or minimizing it.
Are you ready for 2012? There is an important battle underway. Where do you stand? What will you do? To quote Martin Luther King Jr., “My daddy always said, ‘If you find a good fight, get in it.’” Well this is a good fight, a necessary fight. Get in it.
Please go to the Bishop’s website and find more ways you can become informed and join the struggle to protect religious liberty: The USCCB Website on Conscience and Religious Liberty.