Respecting religious freedom domestically

A week ago (March 20) Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, OFM Cap., in his role as the chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities for the
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), together with five other bishops, sent a letter to the United States Senate to support the efforts of some members of Congress to repeal the District of Columbia’s Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Amendment Act and Human Rights Amendment Act.

One might wonder what do those two laws for a small district have to do with Catholics in other parts of the country. The bishops addressed that question at the end of their letter. “We note that the Archdiocese of Washington and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops are among the major institutions that could be severely impacted by these measures. Accordingly it is imperative that Congress take action against government coercion that would undermine our cherished freedoms, especially here in our nation’s capital.”

In other words, the USCCB itself, since it has its offices in the district, plus our fellow Catholics in it, would have their religious liberties harmed in the capital itself. “Both D.C. acts violate the freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of association protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as well as by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and other federal laws,” the bishops wrote.

Regarding the first of the laws in question, the bishops explained, “The Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Amendment Act (RHNDA) prevents religious institutions, faith-based organizations, and Pro-Life advocacy organizations from making employment decisions consistent with their sincerely-held beliefs. For example, they could be forced to hire, retain and promote individuals whose public speech and conduct contradicts their missions. They may also be forced to subsidize elective abortions through their employee health plans, a result which would violate the Hyde/Weldon Amendment approved every year by Congress as part of the Labor/HHS appropriations act.”

Thus, Catholic and non-Catholic religious institutions, as well as groups like the National Right to Life Committee, would have to subsidize abortions for their employees, as well as allow people who publicly held strongly divergent views on life issues to climb through the ranks of their organizations. If the opposite were being forced on Planned Parenthood, there would be an incredible outcry from the mass media, but when Pro-Lifers’ rights are being abridged, the “right” to kill a child in the womb is more important than rights guaranteed in the Constitution.

In terms of the other D.C. law, the bishops noted, “The Human Rights Amendment Act (HRAA) repeals the Nation’s Capital Religious Liberty and Academic Freedom Act (also known as the ‘Armstrong Amendment’ after Senator William Armstrong) passed by Congress in 1989 and made part of the District of Columbia code. Importantly, the Armstrong Amendment ensures that the D.C. Human Rights Act cannot be construed to require religiously-affiliated schools to officially endorse, fund, or provide other assistance for the promotion of human sexuality or sexual conduct contrary to the schools’ faith and moral beliefs. Although there are different beliefs regarding human sexuality and sexual conduct, religiously-affiliated educational institutions ought not be forced under penalty of law to support beliefs contrary to their teachings.”

HRAA would limit religious freedom, in that it would require Catholic and other religious schools to promote views on sexuality contrary to their teachings. “Religiously-affiliated schools are not only obligated by their religion, but also permitted by the Constitution to freely teach and act according to their faith,” said Michael Scott, director of the D.C. Catholic Conference, in speaking out last fall against the HRAA.

The mayor of Washington when the D.C. Council was considering the passing the HRAA, Vincent Gray (D-D.C.), warned the council of religious freedom of problems with it. “If the council wishes to adopt this bill or similar legislation, it should clarify the Human Rights Act’s existing exemption for religious and political organizations to ensure that the exemption protects the religious and political liberty interests that the First Amendment and RFRA are designed to secure.”

However, the council did not choose to do so.

The day after the bishops’ letter was published, the Boston Globe ran an editorial, not on the D.C. laws, but on a new law which had just passed in Utah. Entitled, “Utah’s smart compromise,” the Globe praised the government of that state for “creating carve-outs for religious organizations,” while prohibiting “discrimination for gay, bisexual and transgender people in housing and employment.”

The Globe noted that “gay rights activists aren’t thrilled that the newly-won protections don’t apply to organizations affiliated with churches, such as non-profits and colleges, or the Boy Scouts of America. The law also doesn’t comment on private businesses that might refuse service due to the religious beliefs of the owners.  The bill shows that free-speech rights of religious Americans and the civil rights of gay people do not have to be in opposition to each other.”

The activists in Utah got to have something they desired, without trampling on the First Amendment, unlike the government of the District of Columbia. One would hope that other leaders in our government at the state and federal levels would learn the same lesson.

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