Editorial: Religion in public

Recent comments by Phil Robertson of A&E’s Duck Dynasty fame have once again pushed the debate over religious liberty forward in the public square. After stating to a reporter from GQ Magazine his belief, based on his Christian faith, that homosexuality is a sin, Robertson was suspended indefinitely from his role on the reality TV series by the cable network.

An outcry from both camps followed, with one side applauding the decision and another decrying it. Phil Robertson is hardly a theologian. The founder of a company that made its fortune in duck calls, he and his family have become cult figures with their ZZ Top beards and blue-collar bluntness. An avowed Christian who often prays on the show, Robertson professed to be condemning the sin and not the sinner. The language in which he professed his belief, however, undoubtedly was coarse and devoid of the mercy Pope Francis is repeatedly encouraging. While we must stand up for what we believe as Christians, our pope is also calling us to a higher standard — to stand up for our beliefs with love.

But there’s also no doubt that Robertson is being punished for stating forthrightly his religious beliefs in the public square. Like the canary in the coal mine, Robertson’s case may be a warning to U.S. Catholics. The backlash suggests that we can expect to see more people punished for stating their beliefs publicly. Beliefs will be tolerated, but only if they are kept private. This not only inhibits free speech, but it also inhibits freedom of religion.

The backlash from Phil Robertson’s comments suggests that we can expect to see more people punished for stating their beliefs publicly.

While the Robertson case has attracted media attention, Catholics are increasingly concerned about threats to religious freedom that are not attracting as much coverage: We can be pro-life as long as Catholic hospitals provide abortions. We can go to church, but our job might be in jeopardy if we practice what we preach. We can run businesses as long as we provide health insurance that covers contraceptives, abortifacients and sterilizations.

The U.S. bishops recently recommitted to their fight for religious freedom and against the HHS mandate in a November statement saying that the mandate “establishes a false architecture of religious liberty that … reduces freedom of religion to freedom of worship.” In a recent article commenting on Quebec’s proposed Charter of Values, which critics also see as a dangerous suppression of religious practice in the public square, Margaret Somerville, a professor at McGill University in Montreal, describes the threat. There are, she wrote, three types of religious freedom.

In “freedom for religion … there is no state religion and the state does not interfere in religious matters,” she writes. In “freedom of religion … there is freedom to worship and practice one’s religion according to one’s beliefs.” But in “freedom from religion … religion is barred from the public square.”

What is happening in Canada may soon happen in our own country. And as same-sex marriage is legalized in more states, the concept of religious freedom vs. freedom from religion will be further tested. It is important in this environment that Catholics treat those with whom they disagree with respect and avoid every appearance of bigotry. At the same time, Church leaders and ordinary Catholics must be vigilant in both protecting their own rights of speech and religion as Americans and in truly and fairly presenting the fullness of the Church’s teachings.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor