Taking religious freedom to the polls

June 27, 2012 

The fight for religious freedom has always been a core principle of the American ethos, dating back to the Pilgrims’ founding of the Plymouth colony in 1620. Back then, the Pilgrims were fighting – escaping – the mandates of the state-sponsored Church of England. Today, U.S. Catholics are fighting a similar religious freedom battle against the mandates of the U.S. government.

The church’s declared Fortnight for Freedom vigil of prayer, study and public action for religious freedom culminates, appropriately, on Independence Day. Just as appropriately, the two-week period includes feast days for St. John the Baptist, Saints Peter and Paul, and Saints Thomas More and John Fisher. All of these brave and committed men gave their lives defending their faith against edicts their respective governments deemed superior to church teaching.

The catalyst for the prayer vigil is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate that Catholic institutions provide their employees with insurance coverage for birth control methods the church finds in violation of its teachings. But it is not the sole reason. Catholic bishops are reacting to a series of executive mandates they see as the direct imposition of secular policy over religious practice.

For example, in 2008, Health and Human Services lifted the conscience exemption used by medical professionals who object to performing abortions or other practices that contradict the practitioner’s religious beliefs. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court came to the rescue of the Lutheran Church. In January the court ruled 9 to 0 that a religious institution could define the qualifications of its ministers.

Cheryl Perich, a former teacher at a Lutheran grade school, alleged her church violated federal disability discrimination laws when it rescinded her “call” as a “commissioned minister” and fired her after a disability-related leave of absence. The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held, and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawyers argued, that Perich deserved protection because, as a teacher, her duties were secular.

Their argument ignored her ministerial duties, which included leading students in prayer several times a day and teaching religion classes four days a week. Thankfully, the Supreme Court did not.

On the agency level, National Labor Relations Board has denied a religious exemption (from the Wagner Act) to two Catholic institutions – Manhattan College and Xavier University – when it comes to union organizing of instructors. The NRLB’s definition of a religious institution is so narrow, I doubt a seminary could qualify.

In various states, some bishops have closed down Catholic adoptive and foster care agencies over requirements that they provide services to gay couples, even though the church teaches homosexuality is sinful.

If there is a bright side to this series of attacks on religious belief, it is the awakening of the new breed of Catholic bishops who were inspired by Pope John Paul II, and who experienced their formative years in the priesthood under his papacy.

John Paul led the church back to basics after a theological drift in the wake of Vatican II. The new dynamism of this new generational order has been personified by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He’s a street-smart and personable cleric who is not afraid to tell a U.S. president when he is wrong.

Another Catholic tough guy is Archbishop Charles Chaput, formerly of Denver, who has recently been transferred to the Diocese of Philadelphia, which is reeling from priest sex abuse scandals. Chaput is a prolific writer and speaker who disarms critics with his intellect and wit.

In North Carolina, Bishops Michael Burbidge and Peter Jugis have taken courageous public stands by mustering the faithful to defend marriage as defined by the church. The two bishops have also made the church’s view on social issues, particularly immigration, well known at the General Assembly.

This generation of bishops understands that while souls are saved at church, the freedom and right to save those souls must be defended in the streets, in the halls of government and at the polls.

Contributing columnist Rick Martinez ( is news director at WPTF, NC News Network and

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