QUOTE TO NOTE: Religious Liberty Is Not a Zero-Sum Game

computer_key_Quotation_MarksI read an interesting comment the other day on a blog dedicated to “the pursuit of LGBT equality and gun sanity.”  The blog, uniquely titled The Slowly Boiled Frog, is written by David Cary Hart, a gay man who was the victim of gun violence.

Hart’s post focused on the question of religious liberty.  At the conclusion of the post, Hart comments on a recent essay by Ryan T. Anderson, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.  Anderson regularly writes on marriage, bioethics, religious liberty and political philosophy.  In responding to Anderson’s latest essay, Hart stated:

“Anderson insists that everyone is created heterosexual and cisgender. Anderson has an Ivy League education and a PhD from Notre Dame and I think that he is gay. Yet he finds the need to assert that sexual orientation and gender identity are acquired traits, presumably to suggest that they can be altered. This, in turn, justifies discrimination. Anderson’s only concern in life seems to be LGBT discrimination in one form or another because Anderson lives in a zero-sum universe. Every measure of equality for LGBT people is somehow a deduction from his Catholic religion. In other words, faith conquers intellect and common sense.”

First, a disclaimer: to my knowledge, Anderson has not made any public statement about his sexual orientation, so I don’t think that Hart’s assessment is legitimate in this regard.  However, I find his analysis of Anderson’s argument very insightful.

Hart points out a problem that I think needs to be more fully examined in the religious liberty debate: the zero-sum universe.  So much of the argumentation about religious liberty imagines that one side has to give up something in favor of the other side.  Religious leaders too often see the expansion of equality for LGBT people as the diminishment of their liberty.

Such does not have to be the case, especially for Catholics.  The history of Catholicism is replete with examples where great thinkers like Augustine, Aquinas, and John Courtney Murray reconciled faith with secular thought.  More work needs to be done with finding common ground instead of fighting a turf war.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, February 18, 2017

New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, is scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. Plenary speakers:  Lisa Fullam, Leslie Griffin, Rev. Bryan Massingale, Frank Mugisha. Prayer leaders:  Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Bishop John Stowe, OFM, Conv.  Pre-Symposium Retreat Leader:  Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS.  For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.

Catholics Sign Flawed Document on Religious Freedom

At least 19 people identified as Catholics or employed by Catholic institutions have joined a group of 75 religious leaders in endorsing a “religious freedom” statement issued in December 2016 by The Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

Entitled “Preserve Freedom, Reject Coercion,” the seven-paragraph manifesto claims that religious freedom is under attack because of the adoption of SOGI (sexual orientation, gender identity) laws which have adopted these categories as “protected classifications in the law—either legislatively or through executive action.”

While such statements are not uncommon, and while conservative Catholic support for them is certainly not unusual, it is still surprising to find Catholic leaders agreeing to sign this particular document since it is so poorly worded and argued.  For example, at one point, the statement claims:

“Creative professionals, wedding chapels, non-profit organizations, ministries serving the needy, adoption agencies, businesses, schools, religious colleges, and even churches have faced threats and legal action under such laws for declining to participate in a same-sex wedding ceremony; for maintaining policies consistent with their guiding principles; and for seeking to protect privacy by ensuring persons of the opposite sex do not share showers, locker rooms, restrooms, and other intimate facilities.”

I have followed marriage equality laws carefully, and I do not know of any law in the U.S.  (or elsewhere, for that matter) which compel religious people or institutions to participate in same-sex ceremonies.  I also do not know of any case where a religious institution has been penalized for not providing facilities for transgender people to use that are consistent with their gender identity.  In fact, there have been cases where Catholic educational institutions have voluntarily provided such facilities for students because they see that as part of their religious mission.

Additionally, the statement makes a sweeping generalization which condemns religious exemptions as weak and ineffective:

We therefore believe that proposed SOGI laws, including those narrowly crafted, threaten fundamental freedoms, and any ostensible protections for religious liberty appended to such laws are inherently inadequate and unstable.

What is most surprising about this statement is that religious exemptions that  have been incorporated into these laws have been done so not only at the request of religious leaders, but often with their active participation in crafting such exemptions.  Are they now saying that the input of themselves and their colleagues was inadequate?

Overgeneralizing is also evident in one of the documents concluding passages:

“SOGI laws in all these forms, at the federal, state, and local levels, should be rejected. We join together in signing this letter because of the serious threat that SOGI laws pose to fundamental freedoms guaranteed to every person.”

Really?  What about SOGI laws which protect victims of hate crimes or which punish what the Catholic Church has determined is “unjust discrimination” against LGBT people?  How do the Catholic leaders who signed this document justify this statement in light of what the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said in its 1986 Letter on pastoral care with lesbian and gay people:

“It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church’s pastors wherever it occurs. It reveals a kind of disregard for others which endangers the most fundamental principles of a healthy society. The intrinsic dignity of each person must always be respected in word, in action and in law.”

Among the Catholics who added their names to this document are:  Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, Chairman, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life, and Youth; Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, Chairman, USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development; William Fahey,President, Thomas More College of Liberal Arts; Sister Mary Sarah Galbraith, President, Aquinas College; Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, Chairman, USCCB Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty; Bishops George V. Murry, S.J. of Youngstown, Chairman, USCCB Committee on Catholic Education; Rev. Sean O. Sheridan, TOR, President, Franciscan University of Steubenville; H. James Towey, President, Ave Maria University; George Weigel, William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies, Ethics and Public Policy Center.

The Colson Center website states that the organization “seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending the Christian worldview.”

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, February 5, 2017

 

 

With LGBT Rights Under Attack in 2017, Catholics Must Seek Justice with Renewed Vigor (Part II)

Today’s post is the second half of an analysis of how Catholic LGBT issues in the United States will play out in the new year, and with a new president taking office. Yesterday’s post, which you can read here, discussed emerging issues at the state and local level, contrasting the responses of two Catholic politicians in Virginia as an example.

A demonstrator waves a rainbow flag in f
LGBT advocates rallying outside the U.S. Capitol

I turn now to the national landscape. Writing for Religion Dispatches, Sunnivie Brydum has identified areas at the federal government level where LGBT rights are likely to be threatened. In reading her article, we again ask: what can Catholics expect in the church and in society? And how can Catholics respond effectively?

First Amendment Defense Act

First, Brydum says the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) “is all but certain to become law.” This bill “exemplifies the ways in which the bedrock principle of religious freedom” has been weaponized to block the advance of LGBT equality.”

FADA is a federal version of the “right to discriminate” legislation which has appeared in state legislatures, allowing people and corporations to deny services to LGBT people if the person or corporation acts according to their religious beliefs. Brydum suggested that FADA’s passage in Congress will strengthen local efforts to enact “right to discriminate” laws.

Unfortunately, U.S. Catholic bishops have been leading figures in misusing religious liberty, particularly in regard to LGBT issues. Brydum noted that it was in a letter to Catholics that President-elect Trump said he would support FADA’s passage. These realities mean LGBT Catholics and their allies will have to challenge not only political but ecclesial forces in the coming year. We have to demand that church leaders adhere more closely to Catholic teaching which supports non-discrimination protections for LGBT people and the equality of persons rooted in human dignity.

Attacks on Healthcare Access

Brydum identified healthcare access as a second threatened area. She specifically identified the impact that proposed Secretary of Health and Services Tom Price will have. Price, a congressman from Georgia, has repeatedly voted against LGBT rights and “defended false equivalencies between pedophilia and homosexuality as nothing more than harmless ‘Christian beliefs regarding proper sexual ethics.'” Brydum continued:

“Crucially, Price also denounced the Obama administration’s landmark support for transgender students as an ‘absurd’ and ‘clear invasion of privacy.’. . .For the first time under the [Affordable Care Act], transgender Americans could not be denied gender-affirming health care simply because they were transgender.”

For sexual and gender minorities, changes to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) could eliminate vital programs which help many Americans, and particularly vulnerable populations, to obtain healthcare. One study estimated that 36,000 people would die each year if the ACA is repealed. Rea Carey, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, is quoted by Brydum saying, “If confirmed, Tom Price would steer HHS in a dangerous direction that’s motivated by profit and the desire to control our bodies.”

Again, despite Catholic teaching affirming healthcare as a human right, it has been Catholic bishops and political operatives who have repeatedly tried to stop passage of and then undermine the ACA. Healthcare that is affordable and informed about gender and sexuality issues is not always accessible to LGBT people, but many steps were taken under President Barack Obama to address systemic problems. Catholics will have to challenge any movement to reverse these lifesaving measures, and again demand that church leaders shift their focus.

Curtailed Civil Rights

The third and final national area Brydum addressed are LGBT civil rights, and, specifically, the impact changes at the Department of Justice might have. Brydum wrote:

“President Trump’s Department of Justice may use the muscle that agency developed under Obama to suppress voting rights, privatize education, and strip away existing civil rights protections. That last provision is particularly important for LGBT Americans, who enjoyed an unprecedented growth in legal equality under President Obama.”

However, Brydum said, the approval of Senator Jeff Sessions as Attorney General would mean “the fate of American civil rights law is effectively sealed” and the Department of Justice would become “a powerful foe.”

Catholics in the United States have repeatedly proven to be among the most LGBT- supportive religious believers, and Catholic politicians like Governor McAuliffe who have done much to advance LGBT rights in civil law. Civil rights is one area where it would be easy for church leaders to raise their voices; human rights are a settled matter in church teaching. The chilling silence of most U.S. bishops after 49 people were massacred at an LGBT club in Orlando cannot be repeated.

Looking Ahead in 2017

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The road ahead will be much harder than it was under the previous presidential administration.Wherever civil rights come under attack, Catholics must step forward. Catholic LGBT advocates must be in solidarity with Muslim Americans, communities of color, people with disabilities, immigrants, women, and other marginalized groups who may come under attack. It is helpful to keep in mind these words from the Catholic Committee on Appalachia:

“Catholics are called by God to oppose discrimination in all of its forms. No religious conviction justifies our treatment of anyone as a second-class citizen.  All are made in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, religious freedom does not trump civil rights, as both are important and should be protected equally.”

Now, more than ever, we must cultivate deeper roots of faith in Jesus Christ in which to ground our witness for equality in the church and in the world.

For the latest updates on Catholic LGBT issues, subscribe to Bondings 2.0 in the upper right-hand corner of this page.

–Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 8, 2017

With LGBT Rights Under Attack in 2017, Catholics Must Seek Justice with Renewed Vigor (Part I)

In the last few years, LGBT rights have expanded rapidly in the United States. But 2017 will almost certainly have a different tenor as progress stalls and previously established rights come under attack.

In today’s and tomorrow’s posts, I explore the year ahead as it relates to Catholic LGBT issues. What can Catholics expect in the church and in society? And how can Catholics respond effectively? Today’s post focuses in on local politics, while tomorrow looks at the national landscape.

Contrasting Catholic Politicians in Virginia

terry_mcauliffe_press_conference_ss_header
Governor Terry McAuliffe at the signing of Executive Order 61

An example of the contrasting responses which Catholics offer to LGBT people comes from Virginia. The state’s governor, Terry McAuliffe, who is Catholic, signed an executive order last week which prohibits employers contracted by state government from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity, reported the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Executive Order 61 establishes stipulations in contracts over $10,000 that prohibit “discrimination by the contractor, in its employment practices, subcontracting practices, and delivery of goods or services. . .”, and the order bans state employees from discriminating during the contracting process. McAuliffe commented in a statement:

“‘As my first act as governor, I signed Executive Order 1 to ban discrimination in the state workforce based on sexual orientation, take divisive social issue battles off the table and help build an open and welcoming economy.'”

But battles over LGBT rights have not stopped in Virginia. Indeed, just as McAuliffe signed his executive order, a fellow Catholic in the state legislature sought to curtail LGBT rights.

Delegate Robert Marshall introduced a bill that would “force transgender people to use the bathroom corresponding to the sex on their birth certificate,” according to the Times-Dispatch. It would also “require school principals to notify a student’s parents if the student makes any attempt to be ‘treated as the opposite sex.'”

The proposed legislation is similar to North Carolina’s HB 2 law and other state-level restrictions targeting LGBT people.  Marshall’s proposal is not likely to pass, and Governor McAuliffe has promised to veto it if the General Assembly somehow approves the bill.

Increased Local Efforts to Stop LGBT Rights

LGBT advocates can expect many state-level political battles similar to what is playing out in Virginia, according to Sunnivie Brydum of Religion Dispatcheswho wrote:

“Even before Trump’s unlikely electoral victory, each new legislative session brought a cornucopia of anti-LGBT bills introduced in state legislatures around the country. . .municipal involvement is going to be our best bet to resist Trump’s agenda. While it may seem counter-intuitive to focus a national resistance on regional or state offices, the truth is that local elections matter, and local politicians are often easier to access than high-ranking administration officials.”

Catholics in the United States now have a decision to make in the coming year. Will we act like Governor McAuliffe to ensure every LGBT person attains their human rights to the fullest extent possible? Will we act like Delegate Marshall by abandoning church teaching in the service of anti-LGBT ideology? Will we remain indifferent?

Thankfully, Catholics have previously proven to be willing and effective local advocates for LGBT rights. States with high numbers of Catholics were the first to pass marriage equality laws, and Catholics have successfully organized in recent elections to pass pro-LGBT referenda while stopping many anti-equality proposals. These local Catholic networks will have to re-organize themselves in offering a witness against attempts to roll back hard won rights. Beginning with town ordinances and state laws, Catholics must begin anew the hard work of achieving LGBT justice.

Tomorrow’s post will look at Catholic LGBT issues as they may play out on the national level, and offer some overall analysis about what may happen in 2017.

For the latest updates on Catholic LGBT issues, subscribe to Bondings 2.0 in the upper right-hand corner of this page.

–Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 7, 2017

Jesuit Political Analyst Suggests Compromise in the LGBT Religious Liberty Debate

Has the Republican electoral victory in the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives ushered in a new moment in the debate about religious liberty and LGBT rights?  Jesuit Father Thomas Reese thinks so.  In a blog post for The National Catholic Reporter, Reese, who has been serving as the chair of the Obama administration’s U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, makes the case that the new national mood means that it is now “Time for compromise on gay rights and religious freedom,” the title of the essay.

Reese says that the days of thinking of the debate as a “zero-sum game where no compromise is possible” should end.  He describes the current political context of the debate:

Father Thomas Reese, SJ
Father Thomas Reese, SJ

“The Republican sweep should give gay activists pause. With Republicans in control of both houses of Congress and the White House, it is unlikely there will be any more gay-friendly legislation or regulations. While Trump does not appear to be a homophobe, he is appointing to his administration people who would like to roll back gains of the gay community, and his judicial appointees will undoubtedly look askance on expanding gay rights. Although he will not press for a reversal on gay rights, he will probably sign any religious liberty legislation he gets from the Republican Congress. . . .

“The best the gays can hope for is a retention of the status quo. But it is just as likely that they will see roll back in some areas. Will this encourage the gay community to compromise or will it make them dig in for a longer fight?”

And religious liberty advocates might be tempted to view the new mood as a total success for their perspective, but Reese cautions that this kind of thinking would be a mistake:

“The danger is that they will see [the defeat of Hillary Clinton and the success of Republican candidates] as a total rejection of the gay agenda and an opportunity to reassert their power. But it would be a dangerous mistake if they overreached.

“They should remember those polls that show growing sympathy for gays, especially among young people. In addition, the business community has been willing to use its economic power to push states like Indiana to reverse religious freedom legislation if it is seen as anti-gay.

“Nor should they forget that Donald Trump says that same-sex marriage is here to stay. He even spoke of protecting LGBTQ citizens in his acceptance speech at the Republican Convention, a first for a Republican nominee. While Congress and his administration will be filled with people who have opposed gay rights, this opposition is not a priority with Trump. And if history continues to repeat itself, the Democrats will be back in the White House in four or eight years.”

Reese surmises that this atmosphere which is fragile to both sides’ goals “presents the country with an ideal opportunity to discuss compromise.”  Reese’s vision of one possible compromise is as follows:

“In broad strokes, it would see an extension of nondiscriminatory laws to cover gays while providing limited exemptions for religious believers and institutions. People could no longer be discriminated against in employment, housing, and public accommodation based on their sexual identity or orientation, but church institutions would retain the right to employ and serve on the basis of their faith claims.”

Reese sees the following benefits for the gay community in such a compromise:

“They get national legislation outlawing discrimination in all but a few instances of employment, housing, and public accommodation. Most of the pie is better than nothing. In addition, they get to appear gracious in victory, knowing that the real challenge is not getting legislation passed but winning over most people to a recognition that gays should be treated with respect. As long as they are seen as attacking religion, they will meet opposition from people for whom religion is a central part of their lives.”

Religious leaders would gain the following:

“More certainty about what is legal or illegal. The ability to run their institutions according to their beliefs without state interference or the fear of being sued. Clear exemptions that protect their institutional freedom. An end to being portrayed as homophobic.”

Reese’s proposal has its appeal, but it has its flaws, too.  For one thing, he sees the debate as much more black-and-white than it actually is.   We are not in a situation of gays on one side and religious people on the other.   What about all the LGBT people who themselves are religious and who want their faith institutions protected?  What about the many religious people who see religious freedom as primarily protecting religious people and their consciences, and not just institutions?  The reality of the debate is a lot more complex than two totally separate, opposing camps.

Related to this idea of complexity is the situation of LGBT people being fired from employment or dismissed from volunteer opportunities with religious institutions.  Reese does not really address that important question in his essay.

Second, he sees religious people as motivated by conscience and faith, and the LGBT community motivated by achieving political reform.  That is why he urges the LGBT community to engage in a pragmatic compromise so that they can achieve some, if not all, of their goals.  He blames the inability to compromise on LGBT leaders, not the grassroots:

“Most gays would accept these exemptions, but sadly the activists are not interested in compromise.”

While it is certainly true that leaders and the grassroots don’t often share the same opinions (Catholic bishops and lay people are an excellent example), in the case of LGBT rights vs. religious liberty advocates, I think that the leaders and grassroots are on the same page.

From the perspective of LGBT people, especially those at the grassroots, the issue is not one of mere pragmatism, but one of being legally and politically considered as second-class.  The debate for LGBT people is as much a matter of closely-held principles (such as human dignity) as it is for the religious liberty advocates.

A third problem with the argument Reese lays out is that he seems to minimize the details of what compromises might involve. He states:

“”The details of the compromise need to be negotiated, and the results might be different in different localities. How small should be the family businesses that are exempted? What about an individual employee who has a conscience problem? What if there is no alternative business or employee available to the gay person? For florists and bakeries, should the exemption only cover same-sex weddings and not other purchases? Should exemptions for religious institutions cover all employees, including janitors, or only those considered “ministers” and teachers of religion? Can issues like bathrooms and locker rooms for transgender persons be postponed for a later day?”

These details are important, and involve some very important practical concerns as well as principles.  Compromising on many of them could mean allowing for discriminatory practices to still exist.

A final weakness of Reese’s argument is that the definition of religious liberty is not something that should be dictated by leaders of religious institutions alone.  If religious liberty laws are going to allow exemptions for secular businesses run by religious leaders, then that already is an admission that religion is not just a matter of institutional concern, but personal concern, too.  So, religious liberty proposals need to take into account the religious concerns of LGBT people and their supporters, too.

Despite my critique of Reese’s argument, I think he is sincere in his efforts to try to resolve this debate in a way that allows LGBT people to gain steps toward equality.  He is certainly not motivated by homophobia, but more from a desire to see LGBT people win some political gains during what promises to be a difficult four years. The overall weakness of his essay is that it doesn’t take the LGBT perspective seriously enough to see what values, as well as practicalities, are at stake for them, or how they view the issue.

Fr. Reese has been a strong supporter of LGBT equality.  You can read about a number of his previous statements about LGBT issues by clicking here.  I thank him for using his powerful voice to advocate for LGBT people.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, December 5, 2016

 

 

QUOTE TO NOTE: U.S. Bishops Were Virtually Silent on Trump

computer_key_Quotation_MarksIn a scathing essay which excoriates Catholics who supported Donald Trump for U.S. President, Boston College theologian Stephen Pope also took to task U.S. bishops who were mum about so many of Candidate Trump’s statements which were directly opposed to Catholic teaching, particularly social teaching.

In a particularly strong passage, Pope compares the bishops’ reluctance to speak out against Trump with their loud and strong rhetoric about marriage equality and religious liberty.  In his Commonweal essay entitled “Not the Time for Reconciliation: First Confront the Danger of Trump,” he states:

Donald Trump

“. . .American bishops showed a stunning lack of leadership at a time when it was needed most. Some bishops publically expressed concern with Trump’s description of Mexicans as rapists and drug dealers. To their credit, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Bishop Kevin Farrell, and some other bishops expressed public concern over Trump’s immigrant-bashing rhetoric, but they did not offer a direct and sustained criticism of the substance and tone of his campaign as a whole. . . . Yet no bishop had the courage of Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore to denounce Trump in no uncertain terms as a ‘walking affront to the Gospels.’ Most obtuse was Archbishop Charles Chaput’s assessment of both major-party candidates as ‘equally problematic.’ Truly problematic are prelates who raise their voices against same-sex marriage, but not against overt racism and misogyny. Or bishops who defend the religious liberty of Catholic institutions regarding contraception, but not the freedom of persecuted Muslim refugees who wish to immigrate to our shores.

“In his post-election statement, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, outgoing president of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that he ‘looks forward to working President-elect Trump’ on issues of life, immigration and refugees, religious persecution, and marriage. Kurtz said nothing about poverty or climate change—concerns Pope Francis has made central to his papacy.

To read the entire essay, click here.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, November 28, 2016

Yes to Religious Liberty. But What Does That Actually Mean?

By Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry, October 17, 2016

If asked, most Catholics today would agree that religious liberty is an essential part of the church’s social teaching and most people would identify religious liberty as a constitutive democratic principle.

But questioned further, these same people would offer very different understandings of just what the religious liberty they so affirm actually means. While there are genuine threats to religious liberty internationally, in the United States, religious liberty has become mostly a prominent campaign issue for the right and a puzzling obsession for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Organizations on the left have pushed back against these forces, and even more issues have arisen as civil rights expand for LGBT people.

peaceful-coexistence-report_269_350A new report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights explored the complicated questions of nondiscrimination protections and religious liberty in a new report, Peaceful CoexistenceThis 300-page report from the independent and non-partisan federal agency examined issues like the ministerial exemption to employment protections and included statements from noted scholars, as well as these words from Commission Chair Martin R. Castro:

“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. . .

“[T]oday, as in the past, religion is being used as both a weapon and a shield by those seeking to deny others equality. In our nation’s past religion has been used to justify slavery and later, Jim Crow laws. We now see “religious liberty” arguments sneaking their way back into our political and constitutional discourse (just like the concept of ‘state rights’) in an effort to undermine the rights of some Americans.”

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, in his capacity as chair of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, joined a handful of more conservative religious leaders in objecting to this report and specifically the words quoted above. Their letter called for President Barack Obama and congressional leadership to reject Castro’s statement and other assertions that religious liberty is being misused.

But new data from the Pew Research Center suggests Catholics in the U.S. are at odds with the bishops’ policies, reported America:

  • 54% of Catholics believe business should not be exempted from LGBT non-discrimination protections, five points higher than the national average;
  • 65% of Catholics do not believe an employer’s religious affiliation should exempt them from providing contraceptive services as part of health insurance coverage;
  • 64% of Catholics believe homosexual activity is either morally acceptable or not a moral issue.

91542022-rev-patrick-mahoney-of-the-christian-defense-coalition-crop-promo-mediumlargeSo what are Catholics to make of religious liberty in the United States, especially if we consider equality and justice for marginalized communities like LGBT people to be high priorities?

Some people might agree with Chairman Castro’s contention that “religious liberty” has become a weapon and a shield used against marginalized communities. Sunnivie Brydum wrote at Religion Dispatches that the use of scare quotes around the phrase now seems appropriate:

“This new, mutant form of ‘religious liberty’ does indeed deserve scare quotes. When Mississippi lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a law that determined what kind of intimate relationships are worthy of protection, they also lost the ability to claim that they were seeking to protect faith-based views broadly speaking. Laws like this have less to do with making sure people can freely practice their faith—they are written to privilege one ideological perspective over all others. . .

“Religious freedom is indeed a central tenet of American democracy. . .But when freedom of religion is used as a weapon to infringe on civil liberties—especially in the public square—it deserves the scare quotes that the Chicago Manual of Style says are ‘used to alert readers that a term is used in a nonstandard (or slang), ironic, or other special use.’ “

More centrist Catholics have cautioned against understanding religious liberty as a zero-sum issue. The editors of Jesuit weekly America called for reasoned discourse that seeks a solution amid the competing goods of religious liberty and non-discrimination protects, concluding:

“But if Catholics are to make a full-throated defense of robust religious liberty, we should also acknowledge the ways the church itself has contributed to the atmosphere of distrust around this cause. Asserting religious liberty primarily on ‘culture war’ issues draws attention only to the church’s policing of moral lines, to the detriment of its proclamation of the good news and service to those in need.

“For generations, the church in the United States has provided succor and support for millions of Americans, regardless of religion. This is not a historical accident but the result of the good works of myriad Catholics and an American context that allows believers to freely practice their faith in all spheres. This tradition must continue.”

Elsewhere, Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese wrote in the National Catholic Reporter that religious freedom and women’s rights could be strengthened together in an argument applicable to LGBT rights as well. Reese, who chairs the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, made this important point:

“A way out of this apparent conflict is to emphasize that religious freedom is a human right that resides in the individual not in a religious tradition. ‘The human right to freedom of religion or belief does not protect religious traditions per se,’ explained Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, ‘but instead facilitates the free search and development of faith-related identities of human beings, as individuals and in community with others.’

“Religious freedom does not protect religious belief or religious institutions from challenge. Rather religious freedom protects the right of an individual to believe or not believe, to change one’s religion if one desires, and to speak and act on those beliefs. It protects believers not beliefs. Religious freedom includes freedom of speech and press on religious topics, which allows individuals to challenge religious beliefs and traditions.”

This understanding, Reese commented, reveals religious liberty “in its true meaning” as a source of empowerment for people to live according to their own beliefs and consciences.

Reese is clear that this approach does not resolve every issue related to religious liberty and gender equity, and therefore neither would it resolve every LGBT-related issue, but it effectively counters the idea that religious liberty and civil liberties are “two essentially contradictory human rights norms.” Much good could come if differing sides focused on points of agreement rather than points of contention.

In the world of U.S. Catholicism, progress on religious liberty seems to be simultaneously advanced and stalled at this moment. On the one hand, the Pew numbers reflect a Catholic faithful who conscientiously discern how to advance the common good while upholding goods that can at times be in tension, and this discernment has led them to positions which affirm LGBT rights in such a way that religious liberty is actually strengthened.

But, on the other hand, the Catholic bishops restrain progress, about which Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter cautioned:

“In his response to the USCCR report, Archbishop William Lori, chair of the ad hoc committee on religious liberty at the USCCB, claims that the church only wants the ‘freedom to serve.’ What’s stopping you? As has been argued here and elsewhere repeatedly, there is really no reason, so far as our church’s teaching on cooperation with evil is concerned, for the Catholic church to insist that the accountant at Catholic Charities not get dental insurance for his gay partner. . .

“As they prepare for their plenary session in November, the bishops need to start thinking through two issues if they want to be both serious and successful in their defense of religious liberty. First, they need to abandon the idea that religious liberty extends as far as any particular believer wants it to extend in civil society: The wedding cake baker, bless his heart, is not being asked to participate in anything sinful when he bakes a cake for anybody for any reason. The protections we seek should be for our religious institutions, period. Second, the bishops need to follow the example of their Mormon brethren and reach out to the LGBT community. If this continues as an ‘us versus them’ fight, the bishops will lose.”

The Catholic Church’s endorsement of religious liberty at Vatican II is considered by many theologians to be one of the most notable outcomes of the Council. Dignitatis Humanae, the document on religious liberty, was heavily influenced by bishops and theologians from the United States, especially Jesuit Fr. John Courtney Murray. Where Murray and his collaborators had once been treated with hostility for their views on the issue, they became pivotal in shaping the course of Catholicism in the late 20th century.

LGBT non-discrimination protections are a good affirmed in church teaching, just as religious liberty is affirmed. Our task today is to understand how to strengthen both together. Catholics in the United States should remember the history above, history which calls us to ever more deeply engage and earnestly enact religious liberty in all its complexities.

The only clear answer is that there are no clear answers. We must not only say yes to religious liberty, but come to know more fully that which we are affirming. Bu if we are committed like our predecessors in faith, we can and will find a way forward that is faithful to the church’s tradition while meeting the needs of all in our contemporary world.