Bishops Release Religious Liberty Manifesto Vowing Disobedience to “Unjust Laws”

As promised at their March administrative meeting, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has released its Statement of Religious Liberty, “our first, most cherished liberty.” As expected, it’s basically a rehash of the same arguments the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty has been making for almost a year. This document, though, is even more pointed and hostile than previous statements, expressing disdain for (and even a refusal to acknowledge) court rulings against the Bishops, vowing not to obey “unjust laws,” and pledging to deploy “all the energies the Catholic community can muster” to resist “totalitarian incursions against religious liberty” this summer.

Predictably, the Bishops point first to the Department of Health and Human Services contraception converage requirement as one of the “concrete examples” of the supposed infringement of their religious liberty, charging it amounts to an “unjust law.” The Bishops conveniently gloss over the fact that two state supreme courts have ruled similar laws constitutional. But ignoring court rulings is a major part of this document. Several of the Bishops’ other “concrete examples” turn out to be matters on which courts have ruled there is no infringement of religious liberty. 

The Bishops’ statement complains about the treatment of Christian students on college campuses, alleging that “the University of California Hastings College of Law has denied student organization status to only one group, the Christian Legal Society, because it required its leaders to be Christian and to abstain from sexual activity outside of marriage.” The CLS requires members and those wishing to hold leadership positions in the club to be professing Christians and to disavow “unrepentant participation in or advocacy of a sexually immoral lifestyle.” To gain official club status, the group requested an exemption from the school’s anti-discrimination policy, which the school denied, thus denying CLS official student organization status. In 2010, though, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the law school’s denial of official status to the group did not violate its free exercise rights. Yet the Bishops persist in claiming that this denial infringes on Christian student rights.

As the ACLU’s Paul Cates noted when the case was pending before the Court in early 2010:

If the court were to accept CLS’s claim that religious beliefs trump the need to abide by non-discrimination rules, all non-discrimination laws—the laws we have put in place to guarantee everyone an equal opportunity to earn a living, find housing and to obtain access to critical services including health care—would be in jeopardy.

Sounds downright prescient.

Another “concrete example” the Bishops offer is what they call “discrimination against Catholic humanitarian services.” They complain that HHS declined to renew their contract to provide sex trafficking services because they refuse to refer rape victims for abortion and contraception services—an issue Congressional Republicans have been happy to politicize on the Bishops’ behalf. “Religious institutions should not be disqualified from a government contract based on religious belief, and they do not somehow lose their religious identity or liberty upon entering such contracts,” the Bishops assert. And of the recent court ruling that yielding to their religious beliefs in a taxpayer-funded contract would violate the Establishment Clause? Again, the decisions of the courts are not respected by the Bishops, but rather dismissed out of hand as further evidence of discrimination against them.

Another example of the Bishops’ court-snubbing is the Bronx Household of Faith case in New York, which they call “a simple case of discrimination against religious believers.” The Bishops say that the City of New York “enacted a rule that barred the Bronx Household of Faith and sixty other churches from renting public schools on weekends for worship services even though non-religious groups could rent the same schools for scores of other uses.” What they neglect to say is that the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the churches on Establishment Clause grounds, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case last December. Do the Bishops somehow think religious objectors are entitled to ignore court rulings?

Apparently they do. They compare themselves to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., writing his letter from the Birmingham jail. They add:

It is a sobering thing to contemplate our government enacting an unjust law. An unjust law cannot be obeyed. In the face of an unjust law, an accommodation is not to be sought, especially by resorting to equivocal words and deceptive practices. If we face today the prospect of unjust laws, then Catholics in America, in solidarity with our fellow citizens, must have the courage not to obey them. No American desires this. No Catholic welcomes it. But if it should fall upon us, we must discharge it as a duty of citizenship and an obligation of faith.

It is essential to understand the distinction between conscientious objection and an unjust law. Conscientious objection permits some relief to those who object to a just law for reasons of conscience—conscription being the most well-known example. An unjust law is “no law at all.” It cannot be obeyed, and therefore one does not seek relief from it, but rather its repeal.

(They then go on to say they are not seeking “special treatment” even though they do, in fact, seek exemptions from generally applicable requirements like the contraception coverage and the requirement under the sex trafficking contracts to refer rape victims for a full range of reproductive health services.)

Among the “concrete examples” of infringement of religious liberty there’s a new twist, added, no doubt, to rebut charges the Bishops are fixated exclusively on matters of sex. The Bishops object to harsh immigration laws, such as those in Alabama, which bar “harboring” undocumented immigrants, “what the Church deems Christian charity and pastoral care to those immigrants.” As noble as an objection to these odious laws may be, I find it difficult to see an infringement of religious liberty of the shelterers of undocumented immigrants as their most noxious feature.

Although they do not explicitly refer to the election cycle, the Bishops have a stern warning for “those holding public office:”

It is your noble task to govern for the common good. It does not serve the common good to treat the good works of religious believers as a threat to our common life; to the contrary, they are essential to its proper functioning. 

This is possibly the biggest canard offered in the phony religious freedom wars: that because Catholics are called by their faith to provide services to the needy, that requiring them to play by the same rules as every other provider of those services somehow “treat[s] the good works of religious believers as a threat to our common life.” It was the Bishops, for example, who decided to no longer provide adoption and foster care services in states that permitted same-sex adoption. The states did not reject their services, the law merely required them to serve lesbian and gay couples with the same rights and dignity afforded to straight couples. What’s more, contracts from the Department of Health and Human Services to Catholic organizations have increased during the Obama administration over the Bush administration by $100 million, hardly grounds for claiming mistreatment. (In fact, many Americans probably wonder why their tax dollars are supporting groups who actively oppose equal rights for all citizens.) 

The Bishops close with a call to action, a “fortnight for freedom” between “June 21—the vigil of the Feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More—to July 4, Independence Day.” Fusing the martyrdom of Catholic saints with Independence Day, the Bishops write, “Our liturgical calendar celebrates a series of great martyrs who remained faithful in the face of persecution by political power . . . . Culminating on Independence Day, this special period of prayer, study, catechesis, and public action would emphasize both our Christian and American heritage of liberty.”

All of this will of course come to a head as the general election campaign is heating up over the summer months. The Bishops urge commemoration of “resistance to totalitarian incursions against religious liberty” and call on “an immense number of writers, producers, artists, publishers, filmmakers, and bloggers employing all the means of communications—both old and new media—to expound and teach the faith. They too have a critical role in this great struggle for religious liberty. We call upon them to use their skills and talents in defense of our first freedom.”

It will be the summer of the Bishops’ discontent. Their call to action ensures that it will spill over into the presidential campaign. The culture wars are far from over. This new chapter has just begun.