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Determining Threats to Religious Liberties


At the first Mass after the election, a 70-something parishioner scolded an usher about giving her any more letters from Peoria Bishop Daniel Jenky, saying, “If there is one, keep it.”

There wasn’t – which was too bad. After political bishops “took a beating at the polls,” according to Jesuit Father Thomas Reese, it could have been an opportunity for reconciliation. His Excellency looks more natural smiling, rooting for Notre Dame or cuddling with his Chihuahuas than comparing President Obama to Hitler.

Father Reese said, “The political strategy of the bishops is not working.”

Catholic voters supported Obama over Romney 50% to 47%, comparable to their backing Al Gore over George W. Bush. Further, according to the Pew Research Center, people who attend church a few times a month voted for Obama over Romney 55% to 44%.

Some bishops were angered when the government decided to treat like other employers church-owned commercial ventures like schools and hospitals that serve the public or have workers from various faiths. The rationale was to ensure fair treatment for women who can’t afford adequate medical treatment..

Religious organizations are exempt if they’re clergy-preparatory schools, places of worship, mainly employ people of that faith, or primarily serve that faith.

Surveys show parishioners don’t adhere to bishops’ teachings on artificial birth control, and Obama offered to excuse church-owned enterprises if insurers provide contraceptives to those who need it, but conservative bishops campaigned against the policy, if not Obama, by crying, “religious liberty!”

Some side with the vocal bishops, arguing that insurance including birth control should be “the choice of the church.” But church is more than clergy. The Catholic Catechism states: “The word ‘church’ designates the liturgical assembly, but also the local community or the whole universal community of believers. Lay believers … ought to have an ever-clearer consciousness not only of belonging to the Church, but of being the Church.”

The Rev. Emily Heath, a Vermont Protestant, wrote a quiz, “How to Determine if Your Religious Liberty Is Threatened”:

“My religious liberty is at risk because I am not allowed to go to a religious service of my own choosing, or others are allowed to go to religious services of their own choosing;

“I am not allowed to marry the person I love legally, even though my religious community blesses my marriage, or some states refuse to enforce my own particular religious beliefs on marriage on those two guys in line down at the courthouse.

“I am being forced to use birth control, or I am unable to force others to not use birth control.

“I am not allowed to pray privately, or I am not allowed to force others to pray the prayers of my faith publicly.

“Being a member of my faith means that I can be bullied without legal recourse, or I am no longer allowed to use my faith to bully gay kids with impunity.

“I am not allowed to purchase, read or possess religious books or material, or others are allowed to have access to books, movies and websites that I do not like.

“My religious group is not allowed equal protection under the establishment clause, or my religious group is not allowed to use public funds, buildings and resources as we would like, for whatever purposes we might like.

“Another religious group has been declared the official faith of my country, or my own religious group is not given status as the official faith of my country.

“My religious community is not allowed to build a house of worship in my community, or a religious community I do not like wants to build a house of worship in my community.”

Finally, “I am not allowed to teach my children the creation stories of our faith at home, or public school science classes are teaching science.”

Heath said if you chose any of the first statements, then your religious liberty is at risk, adding, “You have every right to advocate for equal protection under the law … equality – not superiority.”

If you chose any of the second statements, then there’s a chance that you’re oppressing others, she said.

Fr. Reese suggested measured responses by church leaders, like dropping heavy-handed tactics such as withholding Communion from pro-choice people or comparing folks to Stalin.

Listening to the flock is advised, too. In fact, Pope Benedict in April directed bishops to respect the laity, saying, “It is not right for [the laity] to feel treated like second-class citizens in the church.”  

Bill Knight is a freelance writer whose newspaper columns are archived at  The opinions expressed in this commentary are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.