The issue of religious freedom until now mostly has been a tangent to the debate over civil unions and same-sex marriage. After all, the immediate issue at hand was the institution of marriage itself and the protection it deserves under law as a fundamental building block of civil society. 

Those who fretted about potential threats to religious freedom — that religious groups who hold that sexual activity is reserved to a man and a woman committed to lifelong fidelity and open to the procreation and education of children might be forced to curtail their charitable and religious activities unless they acquiesced to the views of those who hold a radically different position — may not have been given the hearing they deserved. After all, at the time their complaint seemed speculative, and there were other issues that were much more immediately pressing. 

But the religious-freedom activists’ day has come.

One of the most recent examples is Illinois, whose governor this month informed a number of diocesan Catholic Charities organizations that the state will not renew its foster care and adoption contracts starting in fiscal year 2012 because their policy on not placing children with unmarried couples allegedly violates a new state civil unions law. 

There are a number of terrible ironies here. First, Gov. Pat Quinn is a Mass-going Catholic, going head-to-head with the Illinois bishops and Catholic social agencies that have done so much good in the state. Second, the bill that created civil unions is called the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act. Third, proponents of the law had explicitly denied critics’ claims that just such an impact would be felt on adoption organizations run by religious groups. 

Another example is New York, whose legislature passed a law last month legalizing same-sex marriage. But barely before the ink was dry on the governor’s signature, proponents of the bill were complaining about language explicitly granting exemptions to religious groups and their associated nonprofits. The New York Times, in an editorial, condemned the “discriminatory intent” of “that provision [that] allows those tax-exempt entities to refuse to marry a same-sex couple or to allow the use of their buildings or services for weddings or wedding parties.” 

Yes, you read that correctly. The editorial board of The New York Times would like to coerce Catholic priests to marry couples of the same sex and to require same-sex couples to be able to use Catholic facilities for the ceremony. 

Those who warned that same-sex marriage and civil unions would lead to threats to religious freedom were once derided. And yet their prediction appears to be coming to pass. 

That it has done so ought to be no great surprise. What is happening is an inevitable collision of one set of rights language — that of same-sex couples — with another set of rights language — that of religious believers to practice their faith and not be coerced by the state to act contrary to their beliefs. 

There can be no truly happy ending here if proponents of same-sex marriage seek absolute binding legal assurance that what they desire is both normative and normal, and therefore can tolerate no distinctions, whether it be civil unions versus marriage or a Church’s teaching that marriage can only be between a man and a woman. What is clear is that there will be increasing pressure on the Catholic Church and likely further retreat from social services and maybe even civil marriage duties altogether. 

But in continuing to fight for respect for religious freedom rights, Catholics also fight for the principles of democracy and reason and tolerance that even the Church’s fiercest critics claim to hold dear.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.