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Michael J. O’LoughlinJanuary 16, 2024
Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Doctrine, speaks during a Nov. 17, 2021, session of the bishops' fall general assembly in Baltimore. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

As the 2024 presidential election ramps up, a new report from U.S. bishops warns that partisanship could endanger the lives of Catholics who help resettle refugees and migrants as well as lead to increased attacks on churches and other houses of worship. Additionally, the bishops highlight several proposed regulations related to abortion, sexual orientation and gender identity that they say present a threat to the religious liberty of Americans.

Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty, wrote that the report “reveals a wide range of concerns, such as federal agencies misusing laws meant to aid pregnant women in order to promote abortion, threats to the safety of our Jewish and Muslim neighbors, and the FBI’s suspicion of Catholics who worship in the traditional Latin Mass.”

Published on Religious Freedom Day, the first annual report from the bishops’ religious liberty committee states that attacks on houses of worship constitute “the largest threat to religious liberty in 2024.” It warns that “boiling tensions” related to the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas “have elevated the chances of a terrorist attack on a synagogue or mosque” and cites incidents of vandalism at Catholic churches and pregnancy centers.

Vandalizing houses of worship has risen in recent years, especially following the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade in 2022. In some instances, vandals have spray-painted messages condemning the church’s opposition to abortion.

But the report warns that the current political climate could lead to violence over a range of issues, including migration.

Warning of a “highly charged atmosphere around the 2024 election,” the report says that “far-left extremists” may attack Catholic churches because of the political battle over abortion rights, while “far-right extremists may view Catholic churches and Catholic Charities facilities as targets for anti-immigrant sentiment or, worse, violent action.”

While the U.S.C.C.B. has organized a religious liberty committee since 2012, the new report states that the original purpose of the group was to call attention to legal threats, “so it is unusual for the committee to be compelled to decry foreseeable threats to the very lives of people of faith here in the United States.”

Among the top five threats, the report names two proposed federal regulations that may compel Catholic hospitals to perform surgeries related to gender identity and abortion and require religious employers to offer paid leave for employees seeking an abortion.

Regarding migration, some Republicans have attacked church-affiliated organizations that help resettle refugees and migrants, such as Catholic Charities. The report calls on “those who claim to defend religious liberty in Congress” to fight against efforts to ban federal money from going to faith-based organizations that undertake work at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The report also says that “suppression of religious speech upholding marriage and sexual difference” constitutes one of the five gravest threats to religious liberty next year.

“There are few freedoms more basic, or more inherent to the American political and social order, than the right to say what is true and not to be compelled to profess what is false,” the report states. “People of faith must guard against erosion of this right.”

The report highlights several proposed federal regulations from the Biden administration that it says are a threat to religious liberty, and in some instances, notes that they are reversals of more favorable policies enacted during the Trump administration. The report also includes commentary on several hot-button issues, specifically related to gender and sex.

For example, it describes the Equality Act, a bill that supporters say would protect the rights of L.G.B.T. Americans but which critics argue leaves little room for conscience protections, “the greatest threat to religious freedom currently before Congress.” It also warns of proposed federal rules that would “forbid schools from having a categorical policy of separating their teams based on biological sex.”

In a section titled “Pride Month,” the report says that the celebration of L.G.B.T. rights each June “has become an annual flashpoint for conflict.” It says that 2023 was “notable” because of “two successful boycotts of brands,” Target and Bud Light, “that embraced Pride Month messaging.”

That section also cited the controversy over the decision by the Los Angeles Dodgers to honor the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an activist group that dresses in drag to look like Catholic sisters. The report called the group “blasphemous and deeply offensive” and noted the response of two Republican politicians, Senator Marco Rubio and former Vice President Mike Pence, who condemned the team.

Looking to the 2024 presidential election, the report predicted that abortion and immigration will remain predominant issues and said that both parties will target Catholic voters, which could inflame existing divisions in the church.

“The pressures of the election will exacerbate trends of partisan division within the Church, and the pull of party over faith,” the report states.

The report also warned that the church must reject the temptation to align with one political party over another lest it risk being taken seriously in the public square.

“To make a convincing case for religious freedom in the court of public opinion, the Church cannot function as a mere political advocacy group or a proxy for one party or another,” the report said. “The Church cannot offer an effective witness to religious liberty if we are beholden more to a political party than to God and the teaching of the Church, and if our beliefs are more political than religious.”

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