Vriezen: Religious liberties are not being infringed upon

Claire Vriezen

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”

The text of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution holds powerful ideas. These words have long been used to protect both the religious freedom of American citizens, as well as the freedom from a government-endorsed religion.

In more recent decades, the religion clauses of the First Amendment have come into play in cases regarding issues such as school prayer, religious displays at government buildings, and financial assistance from the government to religious institutions.

This past week, Catholic bishops met at a national convention to reaffirm their opposition to many contentious issues, such as abortion and homosexuality. The church leaders that met talked of another issue they see Catholics being faced with — religious liberty.

With the nation becoming steadily more progressive and liberal, these Catholic bishops are concerned that their religious liberty — that is, their constitutional right to practice their religion freely — is being infringed upon by more states legalizing gay marriage.

But are these types of government actions infringing upon religious freedoms?

In an incident this summer, civil unions were legalized in Illinois, meaning Catholic adoption agencies that operated in the state faced a choice: continue to offer adoption services and extend those services to couples in civil unions or lose funding from the state government for discrimination.

Now, the state government (or the federal government) cannot force religious agencies or institutions to provide services to certain groups they morally oppose. But when those agencies or institutions are receiving funding from government agencies, the issue becomes one not of religious freedom, but of the separation of church and state and discrimination.

In the particular case of the Illinois adoption agencies, state Rep. Greg Harris, a Democrat from Chicago, gave a clear explanation of why Catholic adoption services would have to accommodate newly sanctioned civil unions, or risk losing state funding. He said, “… they’re coming on behalf of the state to get contracts to provide government services on behalf of the state. They can’t pick and choose which Illinoisans they think are worthy of those services.”

Religious liberties are not being infringed upon when it is a matter of the state government interacting with a religious institution, and requiring it to act in a manner consistent with secular government activities — that is, with an attitude of non-discrimination. When state governments recognize same-sex couples, they can be offered protection from discrimination in the same manner as married couples.

When a religious group is performing services for the state, such as adoption and foster care services, it must be expected to adhere to the same non-discrimination practices that the state holds as long as it receives government money.

Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., at the Conference of Catholic Bishops, worried that “the services which the Catholic Church and other denominations provide are more crucial than ever, but it is becoming more and more difficult for us to deliver these services in a manner that respects the very faith that impels us to provide them.”

Nothing is prohibiting these organizations from providing charitable services to those in need. If these organizations were able to find private, non-governmental funding to help run their agencies, there would be no problem with them continuing to only offer services to heterosexual couples or single parents.

I know of no one who would advocate taking away the religious rights given to Catholics (or any religious group) in the Constitution. One of America’s fundamental principles is that of religious freedom. Each citizen is free to hold any religious belief they desire.

Those who would like to believe they are being suppressed by the secular government and are being denied religious liberties are playing the victim card. They are painting a false picture of persecution and oppression. No government entity is trying to stop these Catholic charities from operating. No one is trying to tell Catholic citizens that they must start accepting homosexual marriages. Governments are simply reminding religious organizations that, if they are being supported by state money, discrimination of unions recognized by that state is impermissible.