Today,the Fourth of July, the U.S. Catholic bishops’ 2nd “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign comes to an end, and it looks like this effort was not any more successful than last year’s program. The campaign, which began on June 21st, was intended to rouse Catholics to become motivated to work to protect religious freedom in the U.S. The bishops have proposed that the freedom of Catholics to worship and govern their church is under fire, particularly because of the advancement of marriage equality for lesbian and gay couples in the political world. The fact that Catholics do not envision the issue with the same sense of threat that the bishops do is a major factor in the failure of the campaigns the last two years.
Marcos Breton, a columnist for the Sacramento Bee, points out that the Catholic bishops seem afraid of the changes that are happening in American culture, and that may be why they have latched on to the religious freedom argument. “The world is changing rapidly,” he wrote, “and it’s natural for some to view the change with trepidation.”
But that doesn’t mean that religious people need to fear for their freedom. Breton suggests a positive toleration on both sides of the marriage question:
“Same-sex marriage is now legal in 13 states and the District of Columbia, meaning that roughly 30 percent of Americans now reside in states that support marriage equality.
“Within five years, gay marriage could very likely be legal in all 50 states. Public opinion has tilted in favor of marriage equality so quickly, it seems history is on fast forward.
“Watching same-sex couples arrive at the Sacramento County clerk’s office on television Friday reminded me of the night the Berlin Wall came down.
“Years of pent-up emotion suddenly found a release. Old restrictions dissolved into thin air. There were tears. There was exultation and a sense of giddy disbelief. Isolated people suddenly joined a broader community.
“With due respect to fellow Christians who disagree, this was cause for celebration – one that doesn’t have to come at the expense of religious freedom or with intolerance toward religious people.
“You can support the idea that government has no business restricting same-sex marriages while loving your church and trying to live the Gospel.”
And toleration for religious institutions is not only a good thing to do, Breton points out it is also the law:
“In a ruling that the U.S. Supreme Court chose not to invalidate, U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker wrote: ‘Affording (same-sex) couples the opportunity to obtain the designation of marriage will not impinge upon the religious freedom or any religious organization, official or any other person; no religion will be required to change its policies or practices with regard to same sex couples, and no religious officiant will be required to solemnize a marriage in contravention of his or her religious beliefs.’ “
Steve Chapman, a columnist for The Chicago Tribune, also challenges the idea that religious freedom is under attack because of the spread of marriage equality. Speaking of religious people who make such a claim, Chapman wrote:
“It’s a bit rich for these groups to complain that the court is infringing on their freedom to infringe on the freedom of gays. Advocates of same-sex marriage are not trying to exclude heterosexuals from matrimony. They are only asking to be free to practice it as well.
“But opponents charge that churches will be forced to host same-sex weddings and their clergy will be required to perform them. Churches that refuse, they say, may be stripped of their tax-exempt status.
“The likelihood that any of these fears will come to pass ranges from minimal to zero. State laws allow divorce, but Catholic priests haven’t been forced to preside at the weddings of divorced Catholics. Employment discrimination laws haven’t been applied to end bans on female clergy. Nor have such internal church policies led to the loss of standard tax exemptions.”
Chapman notes that marriage equality, far from eroding freedom, is actually an extension of it:
“When Justice Anthony Kennedy made the case for overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, though, he relied on a different provision. DOMA, he wrote, ‘is a deprivation of an essential part of the liberty protected by the Fifth Amendment.’ “
Let’s hope that the failure of this second year’s campaign may teach the bishops that Catholics do not see their religious liberty threatened by marriage equality. Indeed, many Catholics see the support of marriage equality as an important way to practice their faith, not an impediment to it. Instead of Fortnights for Freedom, the bishops would do better to have Fortnights for Dialogue, so they can learn from Catholics how issues of LGBT equality proceed from their love of God, neighbor, and the church.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry
April 13, 2012: How Threatened Is Religious Liberty?