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Religious Freedom or Religious Privilege?

Wrapping themselves in the mantle of martyrs of the English Reformation and the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has called for a “Fortnight for Freedom” to be observed from June 21, the feast days of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More, a Catholic Archbishop and a Catholic lay person remembered for their resistance to the Protestant reforms of the 16th century, and Independence Day on July 4  The goal of the fortnight is laid out in a lengthy Statement approved by the bishops in late March and made public last week titled, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” (http://usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/our-first-most-cherished-liberty.cfm).  While one might wonder why there has been no “Fortnight for Economic Justice” during growing economic disparity and despair or a “Fortnight for a Just Peace” in the last decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that, at least in the case of Iraq, clearly violate Catholic just war principles, the Statement is worth exploring, particularly given the bishop’s obvious intent to use it as a shot across the bow of the Obama administration in the presidential campaign.

The Statement cites several examples of “religious liberty under attack.”  First and foremost, of course, is the Department of Health and Human Service mandate that employees of all health care hospitals and providers have access to coverage that includes contraceptives.  Also included in the list are rather obscure local and state legislative and judicial decisions regarding church property and the use of public buildings by religious communities, and decisions made by the University of California and Vanderbilt that require students groups to allow anyone to apply for leadership positions in order to receive University recognition.  These may raise interesting legal questions; they hardly strike me as an “assault.”

The bishops express outrage at the requirement of an increasing number of state contracts for adoption services and foster care that gay and lesbian families not be discriminated against, and that contracts for victims of human trafficking include reproductive services for women at odds with Catholic teaching.  And in a nod to the more liberal wing of the church, they point to laws that criminalize the harboring of undocumented persons in parishes in places like Alabama. Many would join the bishops in decrying these harsh anti-immigrant laws, though more because they violate the human rights of immigrants than because they challenge the church’s ability to confront them.

The list of “assaults” is accompanied by numerous references to religious and political luminaries: Archbishop Carroll, Cardinal Gibbons, Presidents Washington, Madison, and Jefferson, the Second Vatican Council, Martin Luther King, Jr., Justice Roberts, and Pope Benedict the XVI.  Notwithstanding the philosophical argument about religious liberty, the real issue of course is the challenge to the privileges of the church institutions – the huge Catholic hospital system, Catholic colleges and universities, and to the Catholic social service network.  The contribution of these institutions to the quality of life and to the structures of compassion and healing in this country is enormous.  Absent their services and ministries the nation would be severely impoverished and the quality of our civil society vastly diminished.  But conveniently – and notably – absent from the Bishops’ Statement is any reference to the fact that today these institutions and their services survive because of government money in the form of Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements, state and federal contracts, and federally subsidized student loans.  The same is true, of course, for the equally important network of Protestant and Jewish hospitals, social service agencies, and educational institutions.  Tax payers foot the bill for much of the good work that religious charities do these days.  As a result tax payers, represented by government, have a legitimate stake in ensuring that their money is used to ensure equal access to legally available services without regard to religious or sectarian allegiances, that employment is non-discriminatory, and that bigotry does not factor into the way services are provided or withheld.

It would be cleanest if religious charities and institutions refused government money in order to carry out their work free to follow the dictates of religiously formed conscience.  That, however, is an impractical solution given the magnitude of the cost of providing these services.  Society needs these institutions to thrive and that means some forms of direct reimbursement and tax advantages.  But it is rather disingenuous to willingly blur the church-state line when it comes to money and then demand a bright line of separation when it comes to how that money is spent.  It may be that the time has come for a serious conversation about the covenant between civil society and religious communities about how faith based schools and charities fund and carry out their work for the good of all.  That, however, seems like a very different conversation than raising the specter of a return to public executions of conscience bound Catholics at the hands of Protestant rulers in England five centuries ago.

Beware of religious institutions defending their privilege, particularly when it comes at a time when partisan politics is eager to employ those institutions for self-serving ends.  It rarely ends up well for any of us.  Saving our lives tends to be the fast track to losing them, or so the Gospel suggests.  Our first, most cherished liberty is not freedom from government, but freedom to risk our lives in the knowledge that whether we live or whether we die we belong to the Lord.  Church leaders of every stripe would do better to bear witness to that truth rather than orchestrating a campaign to protect prerogatives that hearken more to medieval Christendom than to the pluralistic, liberal, and democratic societies of the 21st century.

John H. Thomas

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