In the last few months, on the national and local stages, a debate of profound importance for the shape of our society has emerged at the intersection of religion and politics. The debate is about the influence of sacred moral teachings on secular law, and the boundaries of Church and State in our constitutional democracy. The debate runs through health care reform on the national stage and same-sex marriage locally. The debate is also about the conflicts over individual rights that are unavoidable in a richly diverse society that cherishes individual freedom while also striving to build the elusive Good Society rooted in both secular and religious ideals of justice and peace. The Jeffersonian “self-evident” truths that shaped the manifesto of freedom known as the Declaration of Independence were these: that human beings are equal from birth, that they have certain “unalienable rights” that come from God, and that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are among those “unalienable rights.”
Nearly 250 years, later, we’re still arguing about the meaning of those words. The Bill of Rights, also showing the mind of Thomas Jefferson, created a legal framework for the American ideal of human rights. And the very first of the ten amendments that make up the Bill of Rights guarantees the most important freedoms in American life: freedom of speech and press, and freedom of religion. Freedom of Religion, in the First Amendment formulation, comes in two parts: the government shall make no law establishing a religion, or prohibiting the free exercise of religion.
Fast forward to the District of Columbia City Council in 2009. A bill is under consideration that would legalize gay marriage in the city. A number of religious leaders have objected to this bill on the grounds that legalizing gay marriage is offensive to the moral teachings of many different religions. Gay rights advocates claim that the bill recognizes their right to be treated in a way that is equal to the benefits accorded other citizens. Those advocates assert that the secular law should not accept the moral definition of marriage as between a man and a woman; instead, they say, the secular law should strip out discriminatory language to permit all people to secure the secular legal benefits of marriage. Religious leaders, on the other hand, assert that the law is a reflection of the moral choices of society, and while respecting the rights of individuals to a point, a moral society cannot adopt laws that are, inherently, immoral. Many of the most vocal opponents of the bill are pastors of Black churches who report feeling increasingly marginalized by the members of the City Council.
A third dimension of this debate has now emerged, pitting the provision of social services to the city’s neediest against the political forces swirling around the proposed legislation. The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington has informed city leaders that the same-sex marriage bill will make it impossible for Catholic institutions to continue to perform services under contract with the city since the bill, in its current form, requires all city contractors to accept the legitimacy of same-sex marriage for the purposes of activities like employment benefits and adoption policies. Catholic Charities, one of the major providers of social services in the city, would be violating the law if it continued to accept city contracts without changing its employment and adoption policies. Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl explained the Church’s position in a Washington Post Column on November 22. Archbishop Wuerl points out in his column that the Archdiocese is not opposing the enactment of the law, although it conflicts with Church teaching, but rather, the Church is simply asking for an exemption for religious organizations who want to work with the city on social services but who will not violate their beliefs by reshaping their institutional policies to recognize same-sex marriage. Advocates for the homeless and others have objected to the perception that the Church is using the leverage of its services in this way. The Church’s response is that it is simply stating a fact, that it will not be able to comply with the law if it is passed in its current language without a religious exemption.
While some members of the D.C. Council were dismissive of the concerns of religious leaders, other political leaders rightly urged some compromise. Even the Washington Post took an editorial position urging compromise. The New York Times editorial board was less supportive of the religious position but still urged a solution that could back away from the brinkmanship of the moment.
D.C. Council leaders should craft a sensible solution. The District of Columbia should not become known as a jurisdiction that is heedless of religious sensitivities. A posture of radical dismissiveness of religious concerns is no way to run a government in the American model. Separation of Church and State does not require the State to treat religious institutions as irrelevant. Our nation’s Constitutional “wall of separation” was devised to promote religious freedom, not agnosticism. Responsible political leaders need to find ways to accommodate religious beliefs sensibly while enacting laws to protect all citizens.
At the same time, religious leaders need to respect the legal premises that guarantee our freedom of belief and worship. Heavy hands will smash the delicate balance of free exercise and non-establishment. While absolutely free to advocate for religious freedom, to pronounce Church teachings on a broad range of legislative initiatives (there’s that First Amendment thing about free speech, too!), and certainly free to refuse to accept contracts that violate religious beliefs, Church leaders need to be exceptionally prudent about not brandishing spiritual weapons to coerce policy results. Religious advocacy should be pastoral and sensitive to the pluralism of the secular state. Religious leaders also need to weigh the relative merits of the battles at hand — whether deliberately walking away from service to the homeless or needy is an appropriate response to a law that coerces religious organizations to provide health care benefits to same-sex partners. The law may well be deeply offensive to religion, but the denial of service to those in need could be a much graver injustice.
Compromise is the price we all must pay for the right to live in a free nation. We all have to find ways to live with each other’s beliefs and choices. Whether the law has to accept any and all choices as valid is a question constantly put to the test in cases of individual rights and equal protection. Whether religion has to accept the law’s inherent neutrality on religious matters is put to the test when the law allows or even approves actions that religion considers to be so morally offensive that it believes that the secular law must prohibit the action. That’s the crux of the debate on abortion and same-sex marriage.
On the larger national stage, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, meeting two weeks ago in Baltimore, heard a clarion call from their current president, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, to reassert authority over Catholic institutions, including universities. The meeting came on the heels of what many saw as a successful effort by the Catholic Bishops to ensure that the Health Care bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives limited funding for abortion. In the same period of time, Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy revealed that his bishop had barred him from receiving Holy Communion because of Kennedy’s pro-choice views. That Bishop, Thomas Tobin of Providence, replied vehemently to Kennedy’s announcement, asserting that Kennedy’s version of events was not quite accurate.
For people of faith, and especially for many Catholics, the current conflicts pose difficult challenges. Somehow, people who believe that faith is a vital part of human life, and who also cherish the freedoms of this nation — and that means most of us — somehow, we have to find a way past this current moment of intractable conflict over matters of religion and public policy. The issues of justice and equality are vitally important to the kind of nation we aspire to be, but the moral issues at the center of the religious concerns are also of supreme importance in defining the society now and in the future.
More on these issues in the days to come. Your comments are welcome…. click on the “comments” link below.
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