It’s time again for the annual Fortnight for Freedom, held by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) June 21–July 4, 2016. For the past few years, the bishops have tried to rally Catholics around their warped version of religious freedom—which promotes discrimination, undermines equality and celebrates imposing beliefs on others—using this two-week period as platform and framework. The Fortnight marks the time on the church’s calendar honoring two martyrs, St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, who died refusing to proclaim King Henry VIII head of the church in England. Yet the bishops’ stilted invocation of these two brave saints to fuel their campaign of discrimination rings hollow. Last year, Catholics for Choice rebuked this wrong-headed campaign in the Washington Post Express by calling out the bishops’ twisted crusade.
This year, the bishops are in rare form. Recent remarks by Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, chair of the USCCB’s Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, will certainly aggravate. At a speech at Virginia’s Divine Mercy University, Lori reportedly said that Catholic institutions are “experiencing the severest threats to their religious liberty” and that Christians face “bloodless persecution” in the US. Similarly, a recent video released by the USCCB reinforces these same themes, moving seamlessly between disturbing scenes of violent religious persecution and a narrative about challenging the contraceptive coverage benefit under the Affordable Care Act, as if the two can be equated. In this Orwellian reversal of reality, it is vexing how institutions that receive millions of dollars in taxpayer money claim to be persecuted when they do not get their way.
It is frustratingly disingenuous to claim that Christians are being persecuted given the stranglehold religious extremists of some Christian denominations have exerted in American politics. Drawing comparisons between those who have died for their beliefs and compliance with policies on contraception and marriage equality is flagrantly manipulative. Who is seeking to impose their religious fiat on public law? How is religious liberty being abused and to what end?
When the government requires that people, including LGBTQ individuals, be treated equally, this is far from posing a “severe threat to religious liberty”—it is the government protecting the religious freedom and civil rights of all people. Further, it is a gross misuse of Catholic teachings to claim that institutions have a conscience or religious liberty. They do not. Conscience is the domain of the individual. Each person has the capacity and ultimate responsibility to resolve challenging moral questions. Granting such authority to institutions over the conscience of an individual is a betrayal of Catholic values that expressly emphasize respect for the conscience of other persons.
Most agree that we are not protecting religious liberty when we pass laws that oppress and harm at the behest of a few. American people don’t want their elected leaders to allow the law to be fused with religion to tell everyone else whether and when to have children, who to marry, what medicine to take or what insurance plan to buy.
Yet the version of religious liberty the USCCB and its allies foster would allow exactly that—using religion as a means to discriminate in public law. The bishops stoke the fires of false persecution as if religious freedom means ONLY the freedom to impose one’s on beliefs upon other people.
The original demands of the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty expressed in September 2011 belie their agenda. The committee made clear whose interests were really at stake. The bishops created a wish list that included:
- Granting religiously affiliated employers the right to deny benefits for services to which they object;
- Conceding special rules for certain religious grantees seeking federal social service contracts;
- Lessening the requirement for comprehensive strategies, like reproductive health services, in international relief and development programs, even when using funds from federal grants; and
- Litigating and legislating in opposition to marriage equality at the federal and state levels.
Bishops and their allies talk about religious liberty, but what they really are seeking is a license to discriminate against anyone and any service they think should be controlled. Let’s be clear: There is big money and big business at stake. The Fortnight for Freedom provides a focal point for the USCCB to try to convince Catholics that discrimination is freedom. Catholics, and indeed the American people, are not buying it.