Uncompromising integrity and intelligence are both needed as Christians move into the future in a world increasingly hostile to religious liberty. Panelists expounded this theme, discussing future prospects for religious liberty in light of recent severe threats posed by the Obama Administration’s HHS mandate, anti-discrimination law and policy, and increased secular liberal hostility to traditional religious belief at a presentation of the Heritage Foundation on January 21. Included were William E. Lori, Archbishop of Baltimore and Chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops ad hoc Committee for Religious Liberty; Kevin D. Roberts, President, Wyoming Catholic College; Roger Severino, Director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation; and James Tonkowich, Director of Distance Learning for Wyoming Catholic College, and former President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.
Tonkowich began the discussion by referring to a widely quoted statement by the late Francis Cardinal George of Chicago: “I expect to die in my bed, my successor will die in prison, his successor will die a martyr in the public square, and his successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly begin to rebuild civilization, as the Church has done so often in human history.” While Cardinal George said he was not predicting the future, he was pointing to a severe problem. What he was highlighting, as Tonkowich explained, was that religious liberty in America, “between court decisions, executive orders, proposed legislation, and rabid anti-religious rhetoric, is in dire straits.”
Archbishop Lori then said that the challenge which Cardinal George spoke about “is for neither the faint of heart nor for the impatient.” He said George was not concerned so much with the many particular threats to religious freedom that now exist, but to “cultural changes that have occasioned it.” Lori described three such changes. Firstly, “the decoupling of our basic freedoms from the search for truth” has undermined the claim of conscience. Secondly, “the decoupling of freedom and responsibility … religion is viewed as an enemy” because it holds freedom to be not just “freedom to choose, but also freedom to choose that which is good and true.” Thirdly, the view that “our fundamental freedoms are given to us by the state, and not from God” has grown. Lori said that “if you challenge one fundamental freedom, you challenge them all.” This across the board attack is seen in the current offensive of homosexual liberation against traditional religion, which involves not just an attack on religious freedom, but freedom of speech (with campus speech codes, and where possible, hate speech laws), freedom of association (with anti-discrimination laws and polices), and freedom of the press (which is more likely outside the United States, where free speech doctrine is weaker).
Lori rejected claims that the Catholic bishops’ efforts to defend religious freedom were self-serving, but were instead generally beneficial to society, supporting “human dignity and the common good of society.” Religious freedom is fundamental to building a society of love, he said. Lori listed three tools that can be used to advance religious freedom. He said that first, “religious liberty is inscribed in our nature.” The second tool he listed “is the gospel.” Thirdly, there is the truth that the family is essential to human nature and the gospel. The family, in Catholicism, is regarded as a miniature church. “We cannot rebuild society without rebuilding the family.”
Education is also at fault for the lack of knowledge about what freedom entails, as many younger people do not know about “American history, or the Constitution.” Classical liberal education has been set aside in favor of training for employment, which while important, has been overemphasized at the expense of liberal education. In particular, we must “learn to value truth for its own sake, and not for what it can do for us.” We need to be involved in politics “not simply as partisans, but with a sense of vocation, that we are bringing something to it, namely the truth about the human person,” Lori maintained.
Roberts then discussed what is happening to religious education at “the sidewalk level.” He noted that his Wyoming Catholic College is a liberal arts institution, which is concerned with the formation of well-rounded persons for life in the wider world. Yet in the current environment in which religious liberty is under attack, it must also focus on equipping its students for conflict that they may well experience in the exercise of their faith in life. He then pointed to the problems that religious schools are having due to the attack of secularists and anti-discrimination law and policy. The worst problem is “at the secondary school level.” Here he said that “it has become difficult, if not impossible” to apply church teaching to employment practices and to admission practices. Thus, the Christian character of these institutions is being destroyed. This is what exists “at the sidewalk level” for “school principals and school boards.”
In this area of the integrity of Christian institutions, it seems to the present writer that if an undesired but required change can be accepted in good conscience, then it should, whereas if it cannot be accepted in good conscience, the institution should be closed, and if not closed, then shunned by faithful Christians. In other words, a conscience claim should only be made if the state requirement is truly sinful, and therefore no person or institution can righteously comply with it. If the requirement is not truly sinful, no conscience claim should be raised.
In higher education, Roberts said that the worst problem is “administrative interpretation of the law.” This is in large measure the result of the HHS mandate. How the HHS mandate will affect nonprofit institutions will be decided by the Supreme Court later this year. With the court having decided in favor of liberty of conscience regarding for-profit institutions, religious liberty advocates hope that there will be the same favorable decision for non-profit institutions. Another problem for religious higher education is with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to the Education Act of 1965, which mandates equality between the sexes. Its meaning has been broadened by administrative interpretation to include “gender identity,” i.e., one’s claimed sexual identity. The Obama Administration is now using Title IX to promote transgenderism to try to change what a religious institution of higher education “thinks and believes.”
Roberts said that the Fourteenth Amendment is the ultimate authority used to justify the enormous expansion of rights of many different kinds in the last twenty years. But it should also be added that the Supreme Court’s interpretation of this amendment to require that people be free to define their own reality (which necessarily means that some persons’ definition be favored over that of others) is crucial to this expansion in ways that conflict with religious liberty. Roberts identified the advance of sexual orientation and gender identity laws (SOGIs) as being now in the vanguard of the attack on religious liberty. He noted that Wyoming Catholic College led the fight against a proposed SOGI in Wyoming. Alliances need to be built with everyone committed to the freedoms of a classical liberal state, he maintained, noting that the proposed First Amendment Defense Act is an example of what should be done. He said this is the kind of offense that is needed, in addition to defensive actions, such as opposition to the proposed Equality Act.
Severino began his discussion of the legal attack on religious freedom by referring to a public sign displaying a natural family, and that soon it may well be taken down as “discriminatory and illegal.” He noted that the current conflict over unisex bathrooms will eventually “filter down” to religious institutions. However, the current cultural assault of sexual self-determination on religious freedom is not without precedent. The earlier crisis occasioned by the legalization of abortion led Christians and other social conservatives to build a “culture of life” that offered some protection from efforts to mandate the acceptance of abortion. The recent defeat of a proposed SOGI in Houston (termed the “bathroom bill” to emphasize that it would effectively mandate unisex bathrooms), is perhaps the most salient example of successfully protecting society against gender ideology. In particular, Severino noted that the threats of business retaliation against Houston did not happen.
However, the threat of gender-identity ideology to religious freedom remains grave, Severino claimed. The state is now moving against religious freedom in this area “using old vehicles of law, passed in the civil rights era.” In particular, laws and rules against sex discrimination (between men and women) are now being reinterpreted and used to apply to sexual orientation and self-determined “gender identity.” Another threat is that the redefinition of marriage as being between two people, rather than between a man and a woman, will result in people no longer being able to act on the belief that people have their natural sex. In particular, a proposed gender identity rule in HHS would mandate that insurance plans cover sex re-assignment surgeries. It would also require that physicians perform them, with no religious exemptions. This would “overrule the best medical judgment of practitioners, so long as you could get a psychologist to make the referral.” Thus in areas that are “fraught with moral concern” and even professional disagreement about the desirability of mandated treatments, the dictates of gender ideology are being imposed by administrative decree.
Severino identified “secularism, the growth of the regulatory state, and the sexual revolution” as the three major causes of the current crisis of liberty of conscience in the public square, and among medical professionals in particular. He noted that “if you lack faith, then people of faith seem foreign to you.” The growth of the regulatory state was especially occasioned by the Affordable Care Act, which precipitated the cases of Hobby Lobby, Conestoga Wood, and Little Sisters of the Poor. The growth of the regulatory state would not be a problem for religious freedom, Severino said, if the views of the state and widespread religious belief did not diverge. But since they are diverging on marriage, sex, and the family, there is a greater potential for conflict. With respect to the sexual revolution, “what we are seeing now is the logical conclusion.” If sex is “all about adult romance,” then we lose any common sense reason to restrict sexual activity to two persons of the opposite sex. The SOGI laws, which mandate acceptance of immoral sexual activity, essentially amount to a reduction of religious liberty; the stronger they are, the more religious liberty is lost.
Among the solutions, Severino noted that the proposed First Amendment Defense Act would stop the proposed Equality Act (which also explicitly carves out its action from any protection that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act would afford). Attempts to write religious liberty exemptions into SOGI laws (including the Equality Act) are essentially attempts to “negotiate a surrender.” Further, Severino said, questions of natural rights should not be negotiated as matters of power politics, nor have religious exemptions proved durable. He said that once one accepts that the religious conscience amounts to prejudice, there is no reason for religious exemptions, and they cannot be expected to endure. Severino suggested, however, that the accusation of prejudice can be overcome by keeping in the mind of the public that sexual identity is not equivalent with sexual behavior. If people are “allowed to live their faith, the arguments of the Left will lose force.”
It seems to the present writer, however, that while this is a correct observation of political and legal dynamics, what must be emphasized to the wider world, is that the state is not to judge conscience, but protect it. It is extremely important that religious believers not acquiesce in requirements they conscientiously object to. In addition to sinful action being absolutely wrong, politicians have less incentive to enact good laws and policy, and conscience protections where they are needed.
Tonkowich asked how the First Amendment Defense Act could be passed in view of the possibility of difficulties in the Senate and a presidential veto if approved. Severino responded that the bill’s future depends on the outcome of the next election. Concerning the First Amendment Defense Act, he said the Left is countering with wild “hypotheticals of things that have not happened in real life.” It should also be noted that the proposed act is protecting freedoms that Americans have always known, not inaugurating an uncharted course, as the Equality Act does. Severino also noted that the First Amendment Defense Act and the Equality Act set markers as to what each side wants, but that any effort to combine them would be bad, as any compromise amounts to a reduction of religious liberty.
Tonkowich reported that in the wake of the gutting of Indiana’s RFRA to exclude conscientious objection to homosexuality, focus groups were conducted to see how people reacted to terms used in the ongoing debate over religious freedom. The result was the finding that people tend to react negatively to the term “religious liberty,” and the term “conscience” meant nothing to them. “Freedom to live and act according to one’s beliefs” was more positively received. “How do we address religious liberty with our neighbors?” Tonkowich asked. Archbishop Lori similarly said that the Catholic bishops also found that “religious liberty” did not resonate well, but “freedom” did better. “The freedom to put one’s religious beliefs into practice is a good starting place,” Lori said.
Roberts said the method that worked for Wyoming Catholic College in stopping a local SOGI ordinance was emphasizing to local officials “one by one how all of these first freedoms are joined.” He said that this also worked very well state-wide. The college’s “liberty lectures” met the most resistance from those committed to religious liberty who do not want the ideal to be muted. But Roberts felt that religious liberty should not be emphasized for the sake of public relations, and that discussions of “freedom” should be done “with a smile on your face, and with joy in your heart.”
Public perception not only of what is said, but who is saying it, is also important. Archbishop Lori noted that believers must not allow the world to categorize them as irrational. Rather, he quoted Pope John Paul II that “faith and reason are the two wings that lift the human spirit.” Here it should be added that secularists cannot fully justify their beliefs either. A measure of faith is necessary to sustain secularist belief, whether in the primacy of reason, or in individual self-determination.
Lori responded in the same vein to a question about diminished respect for the clergy. He indicated that John Paul II also said that “the task of building a just society” is principally the task of the laity. Lori then noted that in the contemporary world “institutions in general have taken something of a battering, and religious institutions are no exception.” He said that “some of that is a self-inflicted wound, because when we are not true to ourselves, we weaken our own credibility.” The decline in respect for institutions is bad for society, Lori said, because a free society needs institutions to offset the power of the state. “Churches, schools, families, and other organizations” are all important as “mediating institutions.” Despite the fact that institutions have flawed individuals functioning in them, they do an enormous amount of good. Catholic Charities, for instance, does an enormous amount of good in the city of Baltimore, being the largest social service organization in the state of Maryland.
A key point made by panelists was the importance of not compromising with the opposition. Severino pointed out that because compromises were not made after the Roe vs. Wade decision, the full pro-life position can now be maintained. Instead, conscience protections were obtained. More recently, Archbishop Lori noted, the Obama Administration’s proposed accommodation on the HHS mandate was not accepted, as it left faith-based organizations still ultimately involved in facilitating contraception and abortion.
Institutional support for believers involved in the conflict over religious liberty is important, both in providing strength in the political struggle, and justification for accommodating conscience claims. Roberts pointed out that Pope Francis has said very positive things about the Church’s mission and religious liberty. He particularly liked Francis’ terms “field hospital” and “culture of encounter” as descriptive of the Church’s mission in the world. Roberts said Christians need to maintain “a comprehensive view of what our obligations are in this society” and the realization that, no matter what happens temporally in the world, God wins in the end.Google+