June 23, 2017

Religious liberty advocacy occurs at federal, state and local levels

By Sean Gallagher

Since its founding in 2011, the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Freedom has been a prominent voice in the public square in speaking out for freedom of conscience and against recent government efforts to curtail it.

On June 15, the bishops voted during their spring meeting in Indianapolis to make the committee a permanent body in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

(See more news and photos from the USCCB Meeting)

While the committee has garnered much attention on the national stage over the past six years, most notably in its advocacy against the Affordable Care Act’s abortifacient, sterilization and contraceptive mandate, religious liberty advocacy has also made strides at the state and local levels.

In comments made during a press conference after the vote, Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, the committee’s chairman since its inception, noted that it has worked closely with state Catholic conferences across the country in promoting religious freedom.

“As we meet with the state Catholic conference directors, we learn from them what’s going on in municipalities, in state capitols,” he said. “We get a fuller sense from them as to what some of the challenges are in addition to the federal challenges.”

The Texas Conference of Catholic Bishops (TCCB) recently worked with that state’s legislature to put in place conscience protection for religious agencies that facilitate adoptions and place children in foster care.

On June 15, the same day that the bishops made the religious freedom committee permanent, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas signed into law the Freedom to Serve Children Act, which prohibits the state government from discriminating against religiously-based agencies that facilitate adoptions and foster care.

Similar laws, which have been passed in Michigan and South Dakota, are in part a response to court decisions in Illinois and Massachusetts that required such agencies to place children in the homes of same-sex couples, even if this contradicted the beliefs of their sponsoring faith community. As a result of those court decisions, Catholic Charities agencies in those states stopped facilitating adoptions.

Jennifer Allmon, executive director of the TCCB, said the conference’s advocacy of the bill was focused more on ensuring the Church’s continued care for children in need at a time when a crisis in Texas foster care was occurring than on religious liberty itself.

“Texas needs us in this marketplace,” Allmon said. “And we were happy to serve in this marketplace, but we want to bring our faith with us. This really shifted the dynamic. It went from a bill that maybe had a hearing and that’s all, to a pretty major effort.”

This change in approach shifted the dynamic enough that Allmon said the bill garnered support from legislators she expected to oppose it. After a vote on the bill, Allmon spoke with one of those legislators about why he voted for it.

“He said, ‘Look, my district is very poor,’ ” Allmon recalled. “‘And the only one who ever comes to my district to serve people and ask what they can do to provide help to our poor people is Catholic Charities. I’m not about to vote against them on a bill, whatever the issue is, because no one else is willing to serve my kids. You are. If you need to serve them in this way, fine.’ ”

At the same time the TCCB was promoting the Freedom to Serve Children Act, the Michigan Catholic Conference was sponsoring its “Freedom to Serve” project, a series of TV commercials promoting religious liberty on stations across the state.

Like the approach taken to legislation by the TCCB, the advertisements focused on the significant contribution that Catholic Charities agencies make to the common good in Michigan. It highlighted the fact that a Church agency is one of the largest providers of bottled water in Flint, Mich., which has garnered national attention over the past several years for the dangerous levels of lead in its water supply.

Paul Long, president and chief executive officer of the Michigan Catholic Conference, said that it was “forces in the broader society” that spurred the campaign.

He said that focusing on freedom to serve in the campaign is part of an effort to “rebrand the religious liberty discussion, because the phrase ‘religious liberty’ has become almost a pejorative phrase. It’s code for bigotry, partisanship and ideology. We want to move away from that and talk about the service that we do in the community to appeal to a broad sense of the population.”

Long said that he hopes the conference will re-start the advertising campaign in the fall.

“The issue of religious liberty and the freedom to serve is so critically important, not only today, but going forward,” he said. “The commercials are to tug at people’s hearts and minds to help them understand and believe as we do about the importance of the issue.”

State Catholic conference directors like Allmon and Long keep the bishops’ religious freedom committee informed about their legislative efforts and public relations campaigns. At the same time, they are aided in their religious freedom advocacy by the work of the committee.

That’s been true for Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the Indiana Catholic Conference, who has had more intense struggles regarding religious freedom than he expected when he began his leadership of the conference in 2004.

He’s appreciated the assistance that he’s received from the bishops’ ad hoc committee.

“I think some of their resources that they provide in terms of Church documents, as well as their ability to gather and glean the examples and concerns that arise with regard to religious liberty and conscience protection are all helpful,” Tebbe said. “They illustrate the reason for and the need for conscience protection and religious liberty protection.

“The work that they’ve done in the last few years has been helpful, particularly when you’re faced with the threat. Having those resources and other examples to work with gives you support and encouragement for your own struggle.”

“It’s helpful for us to have a better understanding of what’s happening at the federal level,” said Long. “Local issues are being fed to the ad hoc committee. It’s helpful to them to know what’s going on at the local and state levels. That helps them address things from a national perspective.”

“We’re seeking state and federal protection, because we work in both arenas,” Allmon said. “It’s a coordinated effort at the state level and federal level. I was able to be more effective here because of the federal resources and materials that were coming out. It supports our work and appreciates it.”

(To view the TV commercials about religious freedom sponsored by the Michigan Catholic Conference, visit www.micatholic.org/advocacy/freedom-to-serve.)

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