Op-ed: The Growing Abuse of 'Religious Freedom'
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has worked fiercely to deny LGBT rights, and now it’s using the banner of religious freedom to provide political cover for antigay positions. Although we hope any voices that still prefer discrimination over equality will be drowned out soon enough, the bishops’ campaign is more than just background noise.
The Catholic hierarchy is trying to fundamentally change the legal understanding of individual liberties, weighting the supposed rights of religious institutions more heavily than individual rights. At New Ways Ministry, we think there are good secular and religious arguments for not twisting the law into a tool for discrimination. Last fall, the Catholic bishops created the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty to protect against a host of alleged threats, with five of the six predictably having to do with sexuality. The committee opposes same-sex marriage and endorses “ministerial privilege,” which sets different employment standards for religious groups, allowing discrimination that is illegal for other employers. In addition, religious institutions should not have to cover contraception in employee health plans; Catholic charities should continue to be awarded federal funds to serve victims of human trafficking while refusing to provide a full range of reproductive services; and international HIV prevention programs should not require condom distribution.
None of these positions are in line with the beliefs of Catholics in the United States, placing the bishops well outside the mainstream.
But bitter experience has shown that once an unjust policy is set, it can be difficult for our legal system to set it right. The bishops are attempting to create the idea that the First Amendment is really a blank check for religious institutions to do what they like with public funds, when in reality these time-tested protections are for the individual’s freedom to worship, and freedom from religion. This strategy exploits the guarantees of basic freedoms for the purposes of discrimination. But the bishops’ lobby is known for precisely this kind of surreptitious move — playing on Americans’ reluctance to be told they are standing in the way of “Catholics’” (read: the bishops’) religious freedom. The bishops have convinced some lawmakers that the majority of Catholics need and want the assurance that others’ freedom to marry or use contraception be denied for religious reasons.
American Catholics understand and accept the respect for individual conscience, which includes the respect for others’ right to follow their own conscience, even if the bishops don’t. A 2011 Public Religion Research Institute poll found that Catholics are more supportive of same-sex unions than any other Christian denomination or Americans overall. But there are already some worrisome precedents set in the name of all Catholics, among them Catholic Charities’ choice to give up its foster care and adoption services in the District of Columbia and Illinois rather than allow same-sex couples to adopt or same-sex partners of employees to have health insurance. When a Missouri music teacher was recently fired by the diocese for merely discussing his plan to wed his male partner, it was exactly the sort of employer discrimination the bishops are fighting to protect.
The LGBT community has suffered under the law, both by discriminatory statutes and from a lack of recognition for dimensions of our lives that don’t fit within existing legal norms. But our faith in the law and our respect for religious differences are what have many of us invested in the painstaking process of nurturing good, rights-affirming policies while uprooting injustice. Our fundamental objection to the bishops’ religious freedom campaign is that it’s a misuse of the law — an attempt to create new rights for religious institutions while trampling on the rights long-guaranteed to all individuals.
The Fortnight for Freedom, a series of public actions organized by the bishops to highlight their religious liberty crusade, will coincide with Pride parades around the country. LGBT people in some states have more reason to celebrate than others, and it’s heartening that President Obama has come out in favor of marriage equality. Policy makers can’t just stop with the endorsement of same-sex marriage, however. They need to affirm that “freedom” still means the freedom for individuals to live according to their conscience, not the freedom of religious groups to redefine the law.
FRANK DeBERNARDO is executive director of New Ways Ministry. Learn more at the group’s website, www.newwaysministry.org. New Ways Ministry is part of the Coalition of Liberty and Justice — a broad alliance of faith-based, secular, and other organizations that works to ensure public policy protects the religious liberty of individuals of all faiths and no faith and to oppose public policies that impose one religious viewpoint on all.