by Sheila Liaugminas
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate went into effect on August 1 the very same day that Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day became a social, political and cultural phenomenon. They are related. The right to hold and express one’s own beliefs without punishment by government is on the line, and citizens are engaged.
The Defiance of Faith
On January 11, 2012, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled unanimously in the Hosanna Tabor case that the federal government had no right to define religious ministry, which the Obama administration had tried to do. It was a show of audacity even Justice Elena Kagan called “amazing” in the opinion she joined with Justice Samuel Alito. Just over a week later, Pope Benedict XVI issued a message to Catholics in America through the US bishops warning of the growing secularism in our culture that is hostile to Christianity. The next day, the Obama administration announced the HHS mandate that would require health insurance coverage for contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs as “preventive care for women” with no co-pay and no opt-out for employers. It would go into effect for religious employers in a year, and private employers in August.
As Cardinal Timothy Dolan put it at the time, the delay gave the Church one year to figure out how they would violate their consciences. The bishops’ fast and unified action was unprecedented. They attracted firm support and solidarity from other religious leaders and their congregations. Constitutionally protected religious freedom was now threatened by the highest levels of US government. At core, the fundamental right to conscientious objection was denied.
The bishops’ statement, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” was strong:
We are Catholics. We are Americans. We are proud to be both, grateful for the gift of faith which is ours as Christian disciples, and grateful for the gift of liberty which is ours as American citizens. To be Catholic and American should mean not having to choose one over the other. Our allegiances are distinct, but they need not be contradictory, and should instead be complementary. That is the teaching of our Catholic faith, which obliges us to work together with fellow citizens for the common good of all who live in this land. That is the vision of our founding and our Constitution, which guarantees citizens of all religious faiths the right to contribute to our common life together.
Freedom is not only for Americans, but we think of it as something of our special inheritance, fought for at a great price, and a heritage to be guarded now. We are stewards of this gift, not only for ourselves but for all nations and peoples who yearn to be free. Catholics in America have discharged this duty of guarding freedom admirably for many generations.
The HHS mandate is a matter of social justice, a denial of the right to practice ministries in service of the poor and Gospel values. That pulled in everyone and cut across divides that shouldn’t have existed in the first place, but it’s a new day.
Former Vatican Ambassador Ray Flynn spoke out at a religious freedom rally in Boston, where he served as one of the most popular mayors of that political town. Since he was coming as a guest on my radio show, I got a copy of his remarks. “You can’t imagine how I felt when I saw my longtime friend Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York City filing a legal challenge against the Obama Administration for their discriminatory policies against religious institutions in America,” he said. “It is outrageous that the administration has taken action to trample on the rights of religious institutions and people of faith. Despite what you hear from the media and some politicians, this is not about access to contraception; it is about the principle of whether the federal government can force religious organizations to take actions that violate their own faith and their own conscience. Catholics will not stand by and be silent!”
The bishops already had a wealth of resources on their website (usccb.org), but as Archbishop William Lori told me in a radio interview, “it put our work on steroids.” The results are sweeping and impressive. They revised part of their guide “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” and updated it for 2012. They’ve anticipated and met different needs for accessing Church teaching about political responsibility and moral social policy with a wealth of ideas and resources. And they launched an informative blog series, Catholics Care. Catholic Vote. (usccbmedia.blogspot.com/2012/04/catholics-care-catholic-vote-series.html).
Catholics are engaged. There’s no monolithic “Catholic Vote” as the media refer to it, but there will likely be more of a unified force in this election year. The key to the vote is not partisanship, but the right to practice what you believe, especially for the common good.
The Right to Free Speech
Whoever controls the message controls thought, or so prevailing wisdom has gone since Walter Lippmann issued his classic work Public Opinion. The abortion-as-rights movement and the gay-rights-movement have done this very successfully. Americans don’t want to deny anyone their rights, so we can be pushovers for good-sounding causes. The Hemlock Society became Compassion and Choices, and we all want to be compassionate, so the euthanasia movement is gaining ground. “Reproductive rights” is one of the euphemisms of the abortion movement, now proven in the 40 years since Roe v. Wade to be devastating to women and genocidal to generations of their children. But the language of “rights” has proven to be a winner.
This brought us to the Chick-fil-A fiasco. I had paid little attention to it until I saw a Tweet by comedian Conan O’Brien: “It’s hard to believe the greatest division in American politics these days is pro- or anti-Chick-fil-A.”
Almost all media had reported that Chick-fil-A’s owner, Dan Cathy, a Southern Baptist, spoke out against gay marriage with bigoted anti-gay rights views, and that people who turned up on the Appreciation Day, called for by former GOP presidential candidate and governor Mike Huckabee, were intolerant, anti-gay marriage rights bigots.
What did Dan Cathy actually say? In an interview by the Baptist Press publication Biblical Recorder, posted July 16, Mr. Cathy responded to questions by the editor, K. Allan Blume:
Some have opposed the company’s support of the traditional family. “Well, guilty as charged,” said Cathy when asked about the company’s position.
“We are very much supportive of the family the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that.
“We operate as a family business ... our restaurants are typically led by families; some are single. We want to do anything we possibly can to strengthen families. We are very much committed to that,” Cathy emphasized.
“We intend to stay the course,” he said. “We know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord, we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles.”
In a June 16 radio interview on The Ken Coleman Show, Mr. Cathy said:
“I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,’” Cathy said. “And I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.
A media firestorm ensued. Mike Huckabee, joined by the Reverend Billy Graham, called for the Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day on August 1, 2012. The event had over 600,000 fans on its Facebook page on the day millions of Americans turned out across the nation to buy a meal at Chick-fil-A. It was not, as reported by most media, a show of anti-same-sex-marriage rights. It was a positive show of support for free speech, tolerance, and diversity.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, former Obama Chief-of-Staff, accused Chick-fil-A of “not embodying Chicago values” and said they weren’t welcome to open a franchise in the city.
This prompted an incisive response from Cardinal Francis George on his Chicago Catholic blog on July 29:
Recent comments by those who administer our city seem to assume that the city government can decide for everyone what are the “values” that must be held by citizens of Chicago. I was born and raised here, and my understanding of being a Chicagoan never included submitting my value system to the government for approval. Must those whose personal values do not conform to those of the government of the day move from the city? … The value in question is espousal of “gender-free marriage.” Approval of state-sponsored homosexual unions has very quickly become a litmus test for bigotry; and espousing the understanding of marriage that has prevailed among all peoples throughout human history is now, supposedly, outside the American consensus. Are Americans so exceptional that we are free to define “marriage” (or other institutions we did not invent) at will? What are we re-defining? …
People who are not Christian or religious at all take for granted that marriage is the union of a man and a woman for the sake of family and, of its nature, for life. The laws of civilizations much older than ours assume this understanding of marriage. This is also what religious leaders of almost all faiths have taught throughout the ages. Jesus affirmed this understanding of marriage when He spoke of “two becoming one flesh” (Mt. 19:4-6).
Was Jesus a bigot? Could Jesus be accepted as a Chicagoan? Would Jesus be more “enlightened” if He had the privilege of living in our society? One is welcome to believe that, of course; but it should not become the official state religion, at least not in a land that still fancies itself free.
Surely there must be a way to properly respect people who are gay or lesbian without using civil law to undermine the nature of marriage. Surely we can find a way not to play off newly invented individual rights to “marriage” against constitutionally protected freedom of religious belief and religious practice. The State’s attempting to redefine marriage has become a defining moment not for marriage, which is what it is, but for our increasingly fragile “civil union” as citizens.
Those who understand the true meaning of common good and how to serve it have the duty to accept their responsibility for upholding our “fragile civil union,” as Cardinal George said. And he followed this blog with further comments the following week.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is representing a number of institutions and employers in bringing suit against the administration’s HHS mandate for denying their rights to carry out their work according to deeply held religious beliefs guaranteed in the Constitution.
“Remember August 1, 2012. Today begins a violation of American conscience like we have never seen before in our country,” said Kyle Duncan, General Counsel for the Becket Fund, on behalf of the Evangelical Wheaton College. He told me in a radio interview, “Today, the definition of religious liberty in America has changed. We can win cases in court. We can hope for exemptions that aren’t forthcoming from this administration. Or this can all change with the outcome of the election.” It’s all up to us.
I couldn’t get near the local Chick-fil-A for lunch or dinner on August 1, it was so jammed with long waiting lines. But the thought crossed my mind that this may be a sign that Americans are now more willing to take a real stand for religious liberty. And this would be a very good thing.
Sheila Liaugminas, a member of the Voices editorial board, is a Chicago journalist who covers topics on faith, culture, and politics. She is host of “A Closer Look,” an hour-long news analysis on Relevant Radio and is network news director. Her writing has been published in the Chicago Tribune, Crisis Magazine, National Catholic Register, Catholic New World, MercatorNet, and the National Review Online. She blogs on current events at Inforum (inforumblog.com/) and Sheila Reports (mercatornet. com/sheila_liaugminas).
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