Today, people in the United States are not only remembering Martin Luther King, Jr., but celebrating Religious Freedom Day. Both commemorations have renewed meaning with an anti-equality presidential administration taking office in less than a week. It is thus an opportune day for Catholic LGBT advocates to reflect anew on two groundbreaking documents so we can reclaim religious freedom as a progressive and Catholic value.
Frederick Clarkson, a senior fellow for religious freedom at the think tank Political Research Associates, wrote an informative article on why religious freedom is indeed a progressive value. Civil rights and religious freedom are the “complementary values and legal principles necessary to sustain and advance equality for all” and is “one of the most liberatory ideas in history.” Clarkson continued:
“Religious freedom is a powerful idea—the stuff from which revolutions are sometimes made. It includes the right of individual conscience—to believe or not believe as we choose, without undue influence from government or powerful religious institutions, and to practice our beliefs free from the same constraints. It’s no surprise that the first part of the First Amendment guarantees freedom of belief.”
Clarkson offered a historical understanding for religious freedom. In the U.S., the history of this concept begins with the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, whose anniversary is celebrated today. At that time in Virginia, the Anglican ruling class was oppressively using religion to retain political power. Civil courts would prosecute those accused of religious infractions, and vigilantes harmed non-Anglican Christians and others. The Statute was a groundbreaking attack against such abuses, and it would go on to inform the U.S. Constitution and legal precedents ever since.
For the nation’s Founders, protection of religious freedom was “synonymous,” in Clarkson’s words, with protections for individual consciences. Taken together, these constituted “a natural and absolute right,” one which has helped progressive movements throughout U.S. history, including the abolition of slavery, the organization of labor, and efforts for gender and racial equality. In summary, religious freedom has gone from an idea expressed locally in the the Virginia Statute to a human right defined globally by the United Nations, and has remained in each historical moment a clear progressive value.
But religious conservatives, including the U.S. Catholic bishops, are misusing this powerful idea and stunting the flourishing of marginalized communities in the process. In the past, segregationists claimed religious freedom to oppose interracial marriage; in the present, those opposed to LGBT rights have claimed religious freedom to fight marriage equality and transgender accommodations.
Since 2012, the U.S. bishops have focused their annual “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign on gender and sexuality issues yet have failed to address real threats to religious freedom experienced by, for instance, Muslims in the U.S. or Christians in the Middle East. They and their conservative associates from other denominations are actually harming real religious freedom. Clarkson observed that this type of strategy is similar to what was happening in the 1780s when the movement for the religious freedom statute was originated:
“Aspiring clerical aristocrats debase the idea of religious freedom when they use it as tool to seek exemptions from the generally applicable laws of the United States—particularly those that prohibit discrimination.”
Catholics in the U.S. have largely ignored the bishops’ campaign, and overwhelmingly support LGBT equality. The behavior of Catholic lay people shows that religious freedom is not only a progressive value but a very Catholic one.
Religious freedom was not formally defined as Catholic teaching until Vatican II with the promulgation of Dignatitis Humanae in 1965. This Declaration on Religious Freedom, which was the U.S. hierarchy’s main contribution to the Council and relied on the once-censored writings of Jesuit Fr. John Courtney Murray, was in its own way groundbreaking. No longer did the Catholic Church endorse the “confessional State,” in which civil laws mirrored ecclesial teaching, as the ideal. Even Pope Benedict XVI has identified this teaching on religious freedom as one of Vatican II’s top contributions.
Our Catholic understanding of religious freedom protects individual consciences, and Catholics have affirmed a form of religious freedom from our earliest days by teaching the primacy of conscience. As the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes t noted, it is in conscience, this “most secret core and sanctuary” of our beings, alone with a God “whose voice echoes in [a person’s] depths,” where we make concrete judgments about how to live. To act against one’s conscience is wrong. Dignitatis Humanae made this foundational principle explicit in a political sense, positioning religious freedom as a Catholic value.
In a separate article for Religion News Service, Clarkson noted Dr. King’s own reference to religious freedom as a key influence for the civil rights movement. To these secular precedents–Dr. King’s support for religious freedom and the Virginia Statute this Religious Freedom Day–we as Catholics’, need to add Dignitatis Humanae and the primacy of conscience. These are rich writings and witnesses for us to reflect on today.
And reflect we must. As I wrote about earlier this month, here and here, 2017 will be a year of struggle for LGBT equality under the incoming political leadership in the U.S. Already being considered is the First Amendment Defense Act, which is an effort to undermine civil rights by creating broad religious exemptions in federal law, allowing for greater discrimination. The need for LGBT advocates and other justice seekers to reclaim religious freedom in the United States from religious conservatives has never been so urgent.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, January 16, 2017