The United States of America celebrates its Independence Day today, so it seems an appropriate time to turn attention to the thorny question of religious liberty. The argument for religious liberty is often used by ecclesial institutions to request exemptions from laws which regulate civil rights, access to health care, and labor regulations, among other things. In the arena of LGBT issues, these exemptions include not being required to marry a lesbian or gay couple in a church, not providing access to gender transition procedures in religious hospitals, and allowing church institutions to fire a lesbian or gay teacher who decides to marry someone of the same gender.
Religious liberty controversies are often framed with church leaders on one side of the issue, defending faith and freedom, and progressive activists on the other side, calling for freedom of conscience and strict government regulation to guarantee individual freedom, on the other. John Gehring, the Catholic program director for Faith in Public Life, a national advocacy group, recently penned an essay for Commonweal entitled “False Choices & Religious Liberty” which examines another alternative to this deadening dichotomy.
Gehring first notes that the debate about religious liberty has become too hunkered down in opposing camps who won’t acknowledge the legitimate points of one another. According to Gehring, part of the problem is that the bishops have too often exaggerated the claims of having their religious liberty violated. Similarly, progressives won’t admit that religious leaders may have reason to worry. Gehring writes:
“Even many faithful Catholicswho should be most sympathetic to the church’s arguments have grown weary of the divisiveness and worry that the all-consuming quality of the religious-liberty battle now seems to define American Catholicism. At the same time, the perversion of religious liberty into a bludgeon against women’s health, workers’ rights, and LGBT equality has caused some progressives to forget that religious freedom is a fundamentally liberal value. Finding a better approach that rescues religious liberty from the culture wars is challenging, essential work.”
Gehring thinks Catholicism, which too often has misused religious liberty issues, can lead the way to a better approach to this national question. He proposes:
“The nation’s largest church needs to lower the temperature and elevate the conversation. In his visit to the White House last September, Pope Francis affirmed that religious liberty is “one of America’s most precious possessions.” American Catholics, he added, are equally “committed to building a society which is truly tolerant and inclusive, to safeguarding the rights of individuals and communities, and to rejecting every form of unjust discrimination.” To state what should be painfully obvious, Catholics are not living in an era of despotism or facing tyrannical assaults, as some church leaders have claimed. . . .
“If conservatives need to do some soul searching about how they often set back the important cause of religious liberty, progressives also need a better approach that fosters dialogue and common ground instead of division.”
For LGBT issues, the stakes are high around the religious liberty question. Gehring points out:
“Along with battles over contraception coverage that are both technically complicated and politically fraught, there’s been a flurry of state legislation suggesting that religious freedom can be used to justify the withholding of civil rights from LGBT people. The Indiana legislature proposed a bill last year that would have allowed any for-profit business to assert a free exercise of religion argument to deny services. We’ve seen this before; religious claims were once used to deny African Americans basic rights. A restaurant owner should not be able to refuse breakfast to a gay couple on religious grounds. The misuse of religion was wrong in the 1960s, and it is wrong today. After swift backlash erupted from corporate, civic, and faith leaders, the bill was revised to include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. However, similar legislation has been proposed in Georgia, North Carolina, and Mississippi. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam even signed legislation that allows mental-health counselors and therapists to refuse to treat patients based on religious objections or personal beliefs.”
In Georgia, at least, Catholic bishops were on the side of limiting religious freedom in favor of protecting against LGBT discrimination. Gehring quotes the Georgia’s Catholic bishops’ statement against the strong religious liberty legislation:
“While we and the other Catholic bishops in the United States support the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, we do not support any implementation of RFRA in a way that will discriminate against any individual.”
Gehring proposes that both sides of the debate listen to one another’s concerns, and come up with new solutions, instead of continuing to push forward their own agendas:
“It’s wrong to pit religion against equality for all Americans. False choices box us into suffocating corners. Saving religious liberty from the quicksand of reckless rhetoric and political posturing won’t be easy. Progressives and conservatives squaring off in public debates have a choice. We can continue to exchange dueling press releases and self-righteous tweets—or sit down, humble ourselves, and search for common ground. ‘Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord,’ the prophet Isaiah tells us. The comfortable and convenient path is well worn. Taking a harder road is worth the struggle if it leads to principled conversations and respect for the complexity of conscience.”
Dialogue and discussion are always good alternatives, especially when sides have become entrenched. True religious freedom, which respects institutions and individuals, is a reachable goal for our nation and our church.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry