Concerns over religious freedom have taken center stage in recent months as one of the primary issues on the agenda of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. And though the bishops’ national effort is just beginning, similar battles are well under way at the state level. 

State Catholic conferences, which serve as the local bishops’ public policy arm, have for more than a decade been embroiled in a variety of struggles to ensure that laws do not infringe upon Catholics’ right to practice their faith. Of late, those battles have intensified. 

A recent high-profile clash took place in Illinois, where Catholic Charities agencies sought an exemption from requirements under the state’s new civil union law that would force them to provide foster care services to same-sex couples. State courts determined the agencies would not be exempt from the requirement on religious grounds, leading Catholic Charities to terminate its state foster care service contracts. 

Christopher Dodson, executive director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference and a past president of the National Association of State Catholic Conference Directors, said that while such cases are getting national attention, they have long been a concern at the state level. 

“I think state Catholic conferences were ahead of the curve on this,” Dodson told Our Sunday Visitor. “State Catholic conferences are really involved because this is where the battles are, and we were right there, able to see things early on.” 

Encountering obstacles

Among the first states to see a religious liberty conflict was California, where the Church opposed a law in the mid-1990s that would require employee prescription plans to include contraception coverage. 

The California Catholic Conference argued unsuccessfully for an exemption for religious organizations from the mandate, which passed in 1999. Catholic Charities of Sacramento later filed suit over the law, but the California Supreme Court in 2004 ruled against the Church agency’s claim of a religious freedom violation. 

Carol Hogan, communications director for the California conference, told OSV that the passage of the contraception mandate was the first in what has become a long line of legislative decisions that infringe upon religious liberty. Even though many state legislators are themselves Catholic, Hogan said, they have shown little concern for the Church’s position. 

That’s forced the conference to take a more calculated approach, Hogan said. “Our strategy is to do what good lobbyists do, which is to make friends with people who work in the capitol,” she said. They also partner with other organizations who support their cause but may have more influence with legislators. 

Mobilizing the faithful

Even in states where legislators have historically shown respect for religious liberty, Church leaders are preparing for potential threats. 

Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, told OSV that state lawmakers have generally been open to their concerns. But the passage of a 2009 ordinance requiring crisis pregnancy centers to post signs stating they do not provide abortions was an early warning sign. 

“We face very serious challenges in our state when it comes to policies involving respect for life, and as we’re looking ahead, the definition of marriage,” she said. “We’re very concerned about the inevitable conflict we’re going to see as those policies continue to get promoted.” 

The Maryland bishops responded to the coming challenges by issuing a statement titled “The Most Sacred of All Property: Religious Freedom and the People of Maryland,” which outlines recent threats to religious liberty both in Maryland and other parts of the country. The document is both an educational tool and a call to action for local Catholics to become involved in efforts to defend religious freedom. 

“I think that increasingly, for Catholics and other people of faith, we have to deepen their understanding of the importance of their role in the political sphere,” Russell said. 

Unintended consequences

Dodson said that an important task for state Catholic conferences is to look for less obvious conflicts in proposed laws. 

“Sometimes these aren’t the big headline issues that people grab on to,” he said. “Most of them are what you might call ‘religious infringement creep,’ where legislators don’t intend to go after religious liberties, they are just not as sensitive to it as they used to be.” 

In the most recent legislative session, Dodson said he identified several bills with likely unintended consequences for religious organizations. He noted that a proposed law placing restrictions on solicitation phone calls could limit the ability of churches to contact their own members for fundraising efforts. He sought a religious exemption, but was denied. 

He was successful, however, in seeking an exemption to a law that would prevent employers from requiring an employee to have health insurance. Dodson said the law could have placed undue financial burdens on religious or monastic orders by not allowing them to require their members to be insured. 

“We have to be proactive,” he said. “Once an issue arises down the line, it is much harder to get an exemption from the law.” 

Scott Alessi writes from Illinois.