Are we seeing the beginning of religious persecution in America?

Is America on track for a religious freedom crisis generated by secularists in and out of government bent on pushing churches around on a variety of fronts? Fresh evidence strongly suggests that the answer is yes. 

Take what’s been happening lately in Peoria, Ill. In early October, the Diocese of Peoria announced it was discontinuing Catholic Charities foster care services in reaction to a new law requiring state-funded programs to place children with unmarried couples living in civil unions. The diocese said Charities also would withdraw from all its state contracts, said to total $23 million annually.

“I have a responsibility to assure that Catholic Charities operates consistently with the teaching and values of the Church,” explained Peoria Bishop Daniel Jenky. 

Earlier, the Diocese of Rockford, Ill., also ended its foster care services. Three other Illinois dioceses — Belleville, Joliet and Springfield — are still fighting the new law in court. 

National trend

The events in Illinois mirror a growing national trend. The ability of religious institutions to operate free from government pressure to violate their conscientious convictions has increasingly come under attack. 

Repeatedly, the pressure has been brought to bear on churches on behalf of groups ranging same-sex couples to federal officials backing coverage for contraception and sterilization in religious employers’ health plans. In the eyes of the secular militants, the First Amendment rights of religious institutions are of diminished importance. 

In a Sept. 20 letter to President Barack Obama, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York protested recent administration moves aimed at various Catholic Church programs. Archbishop Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, warned of an impending “national conflict between church and state of enormous proportions” which he said would harm both sides. 

Amid these ominous signs, the eyes of people on both sides of the growing church-state confrontation are fixed on a Supreme Court case raising the issue of whether government or the churches have the authority to decide who is and isn’t a “minister” of religion. 

The case (Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC) involves a former teacher in a Missouri Synod Lutheran school who says her rights were violated when she was fired in the wake of several contentious incidents after becoming sick. The Obama administration is backing the teacher in the dispute. At its heart is the so-called “ministerial exception” doctrine allowing churches to decide the “minister” question. 

During oral argument of the case, Justice Stephen Breyer asked Leondra Kruger, an attorney representing the solicitor general of the United States, whether under her interpretation the Catholic Church still would be allowed to refuse to ordain women as priests. Kruger’s answer: “The government’s general interest in eradicating discrimination in the workplace is simply not sufficient to justify changing the way that the Catholic Church chooses its priests.” 

Observers pointed out two unspoken assumptions underlying that: first, that the government does possess an authority to change the way the Church chooses priests that outweighs the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious free exercise; second, that the government might actually take that step if its determination to enforce antidiscrimination laws were to become great enough. 

Few expect the Supreme Court to go that far — at least, not now. For the present, the challenge facing the court is finding an acceptable balance between government protection of the rights of employees in church institutions and the constitutional right of churches to conduct their affairs without government interference. The decision could be one of the most important church-state rulings in years. It is likely by next spring. 

Depending on what the Supreme Court says and how it says it, the outcome could have important consequences for other conflicts now under way or likely soon to be involving church-related schools, hospitals, social services and other programs. 

Currently, too, much attention is directed to ongoing efforts by homosexual activists to expand the scope of legally recognized gay rights, including acceptance of homosexual relationships as marriages. 

A bishops’ conference staff analysis of “recent federal threats to marriage” predicted that if the Obama administration succeeds in changing the law on behalf of gay marriage, “we would face lawsuits for supposed ‘discrimination’ in all areas where the Church operates in service to the common good, and where civil rights laws apply.” The analysis specifically noted employment, housing, education, and adoption services as areas likely to be targeted. 

Silver lining

Reflecting the seriousness with which religious groups view these developments, the Catholic bishops’ conference has established a special committee and office on religious liberty. 

The bishops will discuss emerging problems relating to religious liberty at their Nov. 14-16 general assembly in Baltimore. 

If there’s a silver lining here, it may lie in something Pope Benedict XVI pointed to during his pastoral visit in September to Germany — his homeland and one of the most secularized nations in the West. 

Speaking Sept. 25 in Freiburg, the pope said the historical record shows that “secularizing trends, including the expropriation of Church goods and the elimination of privileges, frequently lead to “a profound liberation of the Church from forms of worldliness.” 

“When the Church becomes less worldly,” he added, “her missionary witness shines more brightly. ... The Church can reach out more effectively and in a truly Christian way to the whole world.” 

That’s an inspiring thought. But it doesn’t excuse churches from resisting efforts to impose state domination on religion. In America, that battle has apparently begun. 

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.