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Michael J. O’LoughlinSeptember 14, 2016
Flagging liberty? Outside Sacred Heart Church in downtown Peoria, Ill, June 2016. (CNS photo/Tom Dermody, Catholic Post)

Can existing religious liberty protections exist alongside recently won rights by gay and lesbian Americans? Most of the members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights appear to think not.

The commission, a bipartisan body that has for decades made non-binding recommendations to the president and Congress, released a report on Sept. 7 that calls for reining in religious liberty protections in favor of non-discrimination statutes aimed at protecting L.G.B.T. Americans. While that view is not new in the debate over what kinds of protections religious institutions deserve, the tone of some of the commission’s members is raising eyebrows.

“The phrases ‘religious liberty’ and ‘religious freedom’ will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance,” the chairman of the commission, Martin R. Castro, wrote in the report.

“Religious liberty was never intended to give one religion dominion over other religions, or a veto power over the civil rights and civil liberties of others,” he continued. “However, today, as in the past, religion is being used as both a weapon and a shield by those seeking to deny others equality.”

The Catholic Church’s point man on religious liberty issues took exception with Castro’s remarks. Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, who chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ subcommittee on religious liberty, called them “shocking” and “reckless.” He warned that the church’s vast social services network could cease to exist if conscience protections are tossed aside.

“Catholic social service workers, volunteers and pastors don’t count the cost in financial terms or even in personal safety. But, we must count the cost to our own faith and morality,” he said.

“We do not seek to impose our morality on anyone, but neither can we sacrifice it in our own lives and work,” he continued. “The vast majority of those who speak up for religious liberty are merely asking for the freedom to serve others as our faith asks of us.”

The report, “Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles with Civil Liberties,” says that civil rights conflicts arise among religious institutions that “choose leaders, members or employees according to the tenets of their faith, even if the choice would violate employment, disability, or other laws.”

The Catholic Church has not been immune to such conflicts. A number of employees have been fired from Catholic institutions or had job offers rescinded in recent years after it was revealed they had married same-sex partners. Church officials say that they cannot have individuals who openly violate church teaching on marriage in certain roles, including working as teachers or music ministers. Critics contend that those roles are not ministerial in nature therefore current non-discrimination laws should prevail.

Beyond the scorching critique of religious liberty initiatives, a majority of the civil rights commissioners also recommended in the report that federal and state governments take steps to curb the power of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law that allows individuals and institutions to claim exemption to some laws if they feel they infringe on their religious liberty.

Passed by Congress with broad bipartisan support in 1993, the law was replicated in several states soon after. It has been used to protect a range of causes, from the use of peyote in religious services to upholding the right of church organizations to give food to homeless people in public parks.

Richard Garnett, a professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School, told America that he finds the report’s findings politically motivated and questioned its recommendations.

“The biggest takeaway is that the commission says that anti-discrimination statutes enjoy a primacy of place over religious freedom protections,” he said. “It’s quite striking because as a matter of American constitutional law that's not true.”

He said most R.F.R.A. cases aren’t “9,000 degree culture war issues” but suspects that the commissioners are trying to anticipate future battles over health care, such as religiously-affiliated hospitals that do not wish to perform gender-reassignment surgery, for instance.

In recent years, a handful of cases involving vendors who say their religious beliefs prevent them from providing services to same-sex marriage ceremonies has shifted the debate about religious accommodations into the realm of the culture wars.

In response, some states have passed laws that would protect such objections, often with the support of Catholic leaders. Three of the commissioners called such laws “thinly-veiled attempts to turn back the clock.”

“The First Amendment is a shield that ensures a diversity of religious views are allowed to flourish in the U.S.,” wrote another commissioner, Karen K. Narasaki. “However, there are some seeking to make the right to exercise their religion a sword that can be used against others who do not conform with their interpretation of their faith.”

While the majority of commissioners supported the report’s findings, others dissented.

Peter Kirsanow accused the chairman of the commission of “singling out of Christianity” and the commission generally of trying to silence religious voices in the public square.

“The 20th century had no shortage of those who believed that they were ushering in a new and better age, and that ushering in that age was worth silencing unpopular beliefs and squelching unpopular views,” he said. “Such thought conformity may seem comfortable and enlightened when, during any given moment in the arc of history, the regnant thoughts, beliefs, and values are consistent with one’s own,” he continued.

“But when the prevailing thoughts and beliefs shift, as they inevitably do, such conformity can prove disastrous.”

Archbishop Lori, for his part, challenged Castro and the commissioners to respect religious voices in a pluralistic society.

“We respect those who disagree with what we teach. Can they respect us?” he asked.

“People of faith are a source of American strength,” he continued. “An inclusive and religiously diverse society should make room for them.”

Michael O’Loughlinis the national correspondent for America. Follow him on Twitter at @mikeoloughlin.

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William Rydberg
7 years 2 months ago
Generally speaking, In my opinion it would be nice if occasionally person's designated by America Magazine as "National Correspondent" would In their summation express a point of view that unequivocally affirms Ordinary Catholic American Jesuit teaching. It's peculiar in my opinion for someone who in this day and age could get away in this day and age, and in their own Magazine to boot, refer to Ordinary Catholic Teaching's Representative as "Point Man". Extremely indelicate characterization in my opinion, which is unfortunate. Wondering out loud. One shudders to think what hypothetical reporting "perspective" would be employed should a government appointed committee take exception to Church reaching on the Sacrament of Baptism, in America Magazine, as their self-appointed "National Correspondent"? One wonders if these articles as a general rule like most papers, are subjected to the Editorial Board, of America Magazine BEFORE publication online? And are evaluated according to a detailed criteria which recognizes Ordinary Catholic teaching? Not doing so in my opinion vitiates the need for Editorial Board. Question to the Editor in Chief of America? Just my opinion, in Christ,
JR Cosgrove
7 years 2 months ago
Mr. Rydberg, I have a thought about modern priests and their theology. One is that they all can take their shot at being theologians even if they have had no additional training other than seminary. The other is that they think and express their opinions in their native language. Here is an article from Scientific American about how people think morally in another language http://bit.ly/2ccHKSQ Up till maybe 50-60 years ago all theological discussions in the Church would take place in Latin, obviously a non native language for everyone. I am sure that many discussion still take place in Latin but I doubt that any of the discussions the current Jesuits have are in Latin. So maybe the change to discussions in one's native language is one of the sources for the relativism we see in the opinions expressed here. Just an opinion. Also Mr. O’Loughlin was here before and then rehired. I am sure he is well aware of what the editors want and that is political not religious. His articles follow a carefully scripted narrative that it proffered, meant to steer one to a desired attitude. The tolerance or fairness to others card will be employed continually.
William Rydberg
7 years 2 months ago
Mr Cosgrove, A little birdie tells me that America is contemplating ending comments. Likely in the style of Cruxnow. The reason why I am pushing reporting and governance principles by the Editorial Board is that should America flip over to no comments. They are in my opinion so "loosie goosie" and berift of Catholic Jesuit methodologies that left to their own design (i.e. without commentator feedback) serious catechetical issues would inevitably result. Finally, in my opinion the Provincial in New York that has ultimate call on America has in my opinion, a tendency to choose from his unseasoned (Jesuit Formation) Team. For example, they sent one young fellow to Hollywood as an America Correspondent who has now been talked in to actually writing a Hollywood Series about the preternatural, along the lines of the Exorcist. In the past, one would in my opinion have to torture any discussion about the evil One from the old style fully formed Jesuit Fathers. Pretty sad in my opinion for the Jesuit Order and America in my opinion if this gets known in the mainstream media-News at "5". Lots of problems in my opinion potentially on the horizon! Keep America Magazine in your prayers and especially Fr Matt. Just my opinion, in Christ,
Anne Chapman
7 years 2 months ago
Mr. Rydberg, you seem slightly confused - there are differences between reporting, and editorializing. Mr. O'Laughlin is a reporter. He reported the story without editorializing. It is not his job to write an editorial. The reporting on the report (sorry for the redundancy) is pretty straightforward. He provided a summary of the recommendations the committee is making, while asking for the opinions of a couple of people knowledgable about the complex issues of freedom of religion, religious liberty, and anti-discrimination statutes. He also quoted a couple of people regarding their reaction or understandings of the report. Most of those quoted (such as Bishop Lori), seemed to be unhappy with the report - taking the view that you apparently take. It would be helpful if you would try to understand that there is a difference between a news report and a catechetical document. Mr. O'Louglin provided a succinct report, as well as comments from both sides of the issue. He is a good reporter.
Angelo Roncalli
7 years 2 months ago
Would a Catholic Institution fire a person who was divorced and remarried? Divorce & Remarriage is against Church teaching --- many would have to be fired. Would a Catholic Institution fire a person who had an abortion? Dorothy Day would have to be fired --- and many more. Many sins are against Catholic teaching; would a Catholic institution fire all those who sin against Church teaching? Let those among us who are without sin, fire those who sin. There would be few --- if any --- left to do God's work.
7 years 2 months ago
If you are implying that some Catholic leaders are employing selective enforcement of Church teachings, I would agree. Pride, Gluttony, Sloth.....once Cardinal Sins, now part of the very fiber that defines our current culture. We could list names of Prelates who reflect these Cardinal Sins (or American cultural traits - pick your category) but that would be a sin against charity. However let us not cede the argument to those who are as prone to sin as the rest of us smelly sheep. The stench amongst us rises to the High Heavens and our Lord knows how broken all of us are.
Anne Chapman
7 years 2 months ago
Perhaps the best way to determine whether or not an institution that is somehow related to the Catholic church has full rights to impose Catholic teaching on all employees is related to funding. Bishop Lori, when saying that the Catholic church might have to cease providing social services is overlooking an important factor. More than 75% of the funding for social services mentioned by Bishop Lori are funded by taxpayers. The services are provided to all without a religious affiliation requirement, and the staff is hired according to their knowledge and expertise in providing the services. The religious freedom rights of the employees in these cases should be honored. The Church can withdraw from certain taxpayer funded contracts, and some have done so. For example, a Catholic adoption agency that was mostly funded by tax money closed its doors a few years ago rather than place children with gay parents. The remaining caseload was transferred to another adoption agency, one that could do the mission according to the requirements that were attached to receiving the funding. At least a couple of individual Catholic Charity entities have chosent to operate without tax money, raising all money to provide the social services with private fundraising. This is as it should be. If the Catholic church seeks to be a government contractor in the area of social services (or education or other), it must abide by the specifications outlined in the government Request for Proposal. The services will not disappear, as they are mostly funded by the government. The work will be done by other agencies, not affiliated with the Catholic church. If the church is providing 100% of its own funding, operating the mission strictly as services funded by the church's own resources, then it should be permitted to follow its religious convictions in providing the services.
Tim O'Leary
7 years 2 months ago
Nice spin Anne. But, it was not the Catholic agencies who changed their long-standing practice of seeking a married father and mother for those children in their care, but a new rule from the Government that shifted the point of adoption away from the best for the children to the adults. They refused even a conscience clause for the Catholic adoption agencies, requiring them to contradict their faith or go out of business. Like abortion and school choice, the Democratic government agencies care far less for the children than they do for their sexual ideology. http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/discrimination-against-catholic-adoption-services.cfm
Tim O'Leary
7 years 2 months ago
Sadly, it is not very surprising that Obama-appointed Democrats would show their hostility to traditional Christianity and morality, as it has been going on ever since they took up abortion as their cause célèbre. This has been replaced by gay marriage and now gender identity bathrooms as their new line in the sand. The “no-prolifer-need-apply” anti-religious test was established in 1992 when Gov. Bod Casey was banned from the Democratic convention. Since then, so many Catholic politicians took the soup to stay politically “viable,” including Cuomo, Biden and Kaine. Castro’s phrase is eerily similar to Hillary Clinton’s list of the “Basket of Deplorables.” Castro lumped any resistance to his morality as “racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy” and Hillary said: "racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic." It is time for the Church to stop cooperating in its own discrimination by taking federal funds. Civil resistance is the only courageous choice.

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