There has been a steady erosion of religious liberty in the United States in recent years. It has been challenged through a broad range of incidents, requirements from the medical world, health insurance mandates, and court decisions. We often take our religious freedom for granted, but it is under substantive though sometimes subtle challenge. We are in the midst of a sea change; we are being told that religion has no place in the marketplace, in the public forum.
It is one thing to request that the government, in its official capacity, refrain from sponsoring sectarian prayer, but it is quite another to tell believers that they are not allowed to express their religion, refer to God, or pray in any sort of public way.
Further, religious exemptions — historically granted when religious beliefs and government policy collide — are gradually being removed, not included at all, or interpreted so strictly that they can never apply. Catholic institutions are gradually being pressured to provide contraceptives in medical plans, to cooperate in adoptions by gay couples or single parents, to provide spousal benefits to gay couples, and to cooperate in providing abortion coverage (by not being able to opt out of plans that provide such coverage).
Some of the erosion of religious liberty is subtle, hidden deep in the details of legislation and the strict interpretations of various judges. It requires the Church and other religious organizations to fight on multiple fronts in a wearying number of cases involving (arcane but significant) legal minutia.
On some level, the erosion of religious liberty is simply due to the sheer number of legal maneuvers occurring in multiple jurisdictions simultaneously. The Church and other religious entities may win an individual battle in one case only to have to face multiple appeals and similar battles in other jurisdictions. Keeping the faithful organized and alert, and maintaining the legal resources to meet every challenge is difficult. It is a kind of death by a thousand cuts.
Consider the following small sample involving the Church and/or fellow Christians:
• Catholics Charities no longer able to provide adoption services – As reported by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), “Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington — which has provided support to children and families for over eighty years — had a partnership with the District of Columbia for its foster care and public adoption program. However, in 2010, a law redefining legal marriage to include two people of the same sex took effect. The District then informed Catholic Charities that it would no longer be an eligible foster care and adoption partner. Why? Because, as a Catholic organization, Catholic Charities was committed to placing children with married [opposite sex] couples so that each child would have the experience of a mom and a dad.” Similar “decertification” occurred in foster care/ adoption services in Boston, San Francisco, and Illinois. “In the name of tolerance, we’re not being tolerated,” said Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois.
• Christian business owners threatened with fines and/or decertification – Increasing numbers of laws are being passed which seek to force business owners with firmly held religious beliefs to choose between providing services that violate those religious beliefs and suffering potentially devastating legal/financial consequences. A few such cases follow:
o New Mexico – The owners of a photography studio refused to photograph a same-sex “commitment ceremony” because they did not want to participate in a ritual that contradicted their beliefs. In 2013, the New Mexico Supreme Court denied the owners’ appeal, affirming the lower court opinion that the studio violated the New Mexico Human Rights Act.
o Idaho – In 2014, two Protestant ministers (a husband and wife) who operate a wedding chapel in Coeur d’Alene refused to officiate at a same-sex “wedding.” City officials informed the ministers that this violated the city’s ordinance outlawing discrimination in public accommodations on the basis of “sexual orientation.” The city eventually chose not to prosecute the ministers.
o Washington – A florist who turned down a request to provide flowers for a same-sex “wedding” was sued by the Washington State Attorney General. In February 2017, the Washington Supreme Court ruled against the florist on the basis that she had violated the state’s anti-discrimination laws, despite the fact that she had served this particular customer (who she knew was in a same-sex relationship) for almost ten years before declining to participate in this particular event.
o Colorado – Two men “married” in Massachusetts approached a Denver bakery to make a “wedding” cake for their “wedding” reception in Denver. For religious reasons, the owner of the bakery declined to make the cake. The two men filed a complaint with the Colorado Division of Civil Rights, which found that the bakery had violated the law. The Colorado State Attorney General’s office then filed a complaint against the bakery, resulting in further rulings against the bakery. The baker has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
o Vermont – For allegedly not hosting a “wedding” reception for a same-sex “couple,” the Catholic owners of a bed and breakfast establishment settled a discrimination lawsuit, requiring them to (1) pay a $10,000 civil penalty, (2) pay $20,000 to a charitable trust, and (3) not host wedding receptions of any kind. Upon settling the lawsuit, the owners of the bed and breakfast said, “No one can force us to abandon our deeply held beliefs about marriage.”
o New Jersey – The New Jersey Division on Civil Rights found that a Methodist organization violated a public accommodations law by not allowing a same-sex civil union ceremony to take place at its boardwalk pavilion.
Business owners should not be compelled to act against their deeply held religious beliefs. There are plenty of businesses willing to serve those who wish to engage in these controversial behaviors, which challenge long-held (even ancient) moral understandings. If a Christian baker refuses to serve a person with same-attraction who seeks to buy a cake, simply due to the customer’s sexual orientation, that would constitute an unreasonable act of discrimination by the part of the baker. However, if this same person seeks to engage the Christian baker to provide a cake that directly celebrates and/or affirms an act that the baker considers sinful, that would impose an undue and unnecessary burden on the baker. This is because it compels the baker to either violate his conscience or face serious legal and/or financial consequences.
• Catholic employers required to cover objectionable medicines and “medical” procedures – The Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate — which requires coverage for sterilization, contraception, and abortifacients, abortion-inducing drugs — still contains language requiring religious institutions to facilitate or fund such coverage even if it is contrary to their moral teaching. This is because the federal government claims the right to define which religious institutions are “religious enough” to merit protection of their religious liberty.
• Catholic humanitarian services organization required to provide or refer for objectionable medicines and “medical” procedures – After years of excellent performance by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) in administering contract services for victims of human trafficking, the federal government changed its grant specifications such that MRS was required to provide or refer for contraceptive and abortion services, in direct violation of Catholic teaching.
• Christian student organizations not officially recognized on campus – In its history of over 100 years, the University of California Hastings College of Law has denied official recognition to only one student group — the Christian Legal Society — because it requires its leaders to be Christian and to abstain from sexual activity outside of marriage.
• Christians may not rent school buildings to hold services – In 1994, New York City’s Department of Education denied the request of the Bronx Household of Faith and several other Christian Churches to rent space from public schools on weekends for worship services, even though non-religious groups were permitted to rent the same space for numerous other purposed. In 2011, a federal appellate court upheld New York City’s ban (on allowing private worship services to be conducted in vacant public schools on weekends) and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case. The city’s policy is a simple case of discrimination against religious believers: people may assemble in vacant school space for any peaceful purpose—except religious worship.
These sorts of bans, legal motions, suits, and fines, are becoming increasingly widespread, and the legal landscape is often shifting. This steady “drip, drip, drip” is helping to erode religious liberty and free speech related to religion.
It is essential that we remain vigilant in these matters. Some want to exclude Christians — indeed all believers — from the public marketplace of ideas. There are increasing numbers of strident secularists who insist that the only legal place for religious expression is inside of a church building or on church-owned property. This is not right and it is not constitutional:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of a religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. (First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution).
Christians and other religious individuals have no less right to free speech, to assemble peaceably, or to petition the government, than any other individuals or groups. Yet many are increasingly arguing that the mere fact that a religious perspective is involved (or that this perspective is not in keeping with recent moral shifts in our culture) should exclude religious people altogether from having a place in the public square. Indeed, in many cases they argue that we should be fined and forced out of the marketplace.
Recognize that in many public schools, our children can be exposed to almost any philosophy, some of them aberrant and with limited supported from the general populace. At the same time, even referring to the Bible as an historical factor in this nation’s history may trigger a lawsuit. Condoms are freely distributed in most schools, yet the mere presence of a Bible is often greeted with hostility by school administrators. Providing information about (and even celebrating) “gay pride,” “transgenderism,” and “gender diversity” is often required in schools, but the mere mention of Jesus (or Christianity) or Christian students quietly praying voluntarily in the school courtyard is often forbidden. This is exclusion of the Catholic and biblical vision is both inequitable and illegal.
Religious Liberty is about more than institutions such as the Catholic Church having rights. The point is that you have a right to the free exercise of your faith. There are people, organizations, and governments agencies seeking to limit or even eliminate your right to religious liberty.
You also have the right to free speech, and there is nothing in the Constitution that says your free speech rights don’t include religious topics or references to God and the biblical moral view. Many people and organizations are seeking to legally silence any religious speech and any religiously based motivations.
Don’t let this happen. Be sober and vigilant about these threats to your liberties. Insist that Christians have the same rights that other citizens do in speaking to their values publicly and in seeking to influence public discussion and public policy.
We need to be alert in these matters and stay thirsty for justice. Work with your local diocese and take part in needed actions such as contacting your representatives when laws are under consideration.
The USCCB maintains a website with a wealth of information on this topic, and it is updated frequently: Fortnight for Freedom.