The Times They Are A-Changing

Religious freedom has been a fact of life in the United States for so long that we’ve come to take it for granted. For us, such freedom has always seemed like the air we breathe — reliably there but rarely contemplated. Judging from the look of things, however, that may be changing. In fact, it may be changing dramatically. 

A number of attempted governmental incursions on religious freedom have recently been in the news. Taken together they certainly seem to signal a change in the value that our elected officials assign to religion and especially in the value they assign to religious freedom. The government seems to be leaning strongly toward an understanding of religious freedom that is much more restricted than that which we’ve been used to, and that which our country’s founders envisioned. 

To put it bluntly, the current administration appears to have adopted a rather hostile stance toward religion. Unsurprisingly this hostility seems aimed largely at religious bodies that criticize or contradict some of the ideas championed by our secular culture, such as abortion, euthanasia, fetal stem-cell research and sexual license. You don’t have to be especially astute to grasp that if this is the case, much of the hostility will be directed our way. So brace yourselves for a bumpy ride. 

The first salvos of what might be a long and unpleasant skirmish have already been fired. Last fall the administration stated it will no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court, which is tantamount to saying that discussion on the nature of marriage is closed, that marriage is henceforth to be understood as being open to same-sex couples. 

In other words, the government is telling us that, as far as it is concerned, the historical and Judeo-Christian understanding of marriage is dead. How long can it be before those who hold to the concept of marriage as a sacrament between a man and a woman are labeled bigots and worse? This announcement by the government provoked a strongly and very appropriately worded response from Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who did a fine job in taking the administration to task. 

The arbitrary way in which marriage is being redefined by those who have political power is certainly a problem, but it’s just one problem among many. On an alarmingly regular basis, governmental agencies — as well as the courts — are attempting to strong-arm the Church into accepting absolutely unacceptable practices such as contraception, abortion and sterilization. At the end of October, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles wrote an article on the website of First Things in which he told of a grant request to the federal government made by the U.S. bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services Agency. The grant request was to help women and children who are victims of human trafficking. It was declined, and the Archbishop wondered in print if the cause of the refusal was the fact that the bishops steadfastly resisted the government’s demands to provide abortions, contraception and sterilizations for the women they served. 

And that’s only the beginning. As I write these words, the Justice Department is attacking the “ministerial exception,” which is an accepted constitutional doctrine stating that churches have the right to make employment decisions concerning those who work in a “ministerial” capacity without interference from the government. Does this mean that government committees will one day be involved in the appointment of pastors? 

That any part of the United States government should attempt such a move is chilling. But it’s not the first such attempt. In 2009, the state of Connecticut attempted to pass a bill that would have given the state legislature the right to modify the governing structure of the Catholic Church in a way that would have disenfranchised the Holy See and the local bishops. This bill was eventually withdrawn, but the fact that it existed at all tells us something rather ominous: some people in our government no longer intend to abide by the Constitution, which forbids governmental interference in the inner workings of churches. 

Governmental agencies and the courts seem intent on whittling away at religious rights in the interest of other rights which they consider to be of greater value. What lies ahead is hard to see, but I suspect things will not be particularly tranquil in the near future. We must fight this in every way possible and pray that the opening words of Archbishop Gomez’s article do not prove to be prophetic: “The sense of religious liberty is being lost in America.” TP