FOX News Opinion: The essential scorecard for religious liberty in 2016

The year 2016 has seen much conflict for religious freedom, not just domestically but worldwide. As individuals fight to defend this basic and fundamental human right — sometimes sacrificing their very lives — we find ourselves asking many questions about the future.

“My life is always filled with more questions than answers,” Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel said in May as he stood in front of 500 people, honoring his longtime friend and former Cuban political prisoner, Armando Valladares.

No one knew it would be Wiesel’s last public appearance before his death two months later.

To those present, he asked a question he said had haunted him throughout his life: “What is it in the human being that he or she is capable of the worst and the best? So fast — literally sometimes overnight, in one hour — a person can change.”

At this time of year, we naturally reflect on what kind of people we want to be and what we have accomplished. But it is equally important to ask those same questions of ourselves as a society. How are those of us who have a voice working to defend those who do not?  How are we fighting to protect those more vulnerable than ourselves?

Right now the people of Cuba are yearning for change following the death of a dictator who ruled the island with an iron fist for over 50 years. Will religious people now be able to worship freely? Will LGBT individuals be free to live their lives without fear of imprisonment and torture? Will artists and poets be allowed to express themselves free from censorship?

Though Elie Wiesel’s time in the Nazi concentration camp and Armando’s Valladares’s 22 years in Castro’s gulags may seem a bygone era, the unanswered question of how to evoke change for the better in ourselves and society lingers. Can we remain silent while others suffer?

Just this month the world looked in horror as Aleppo burned. In Egypt, a bomb detonated at Cairo’s main Coptic Cathedral, killing 24 people. Millions have fled their war-torn homes, hoping for peace in a new country, while ISIS commits genocide against Christians and minority Yazidis.

Though lives have not been endangered, questions of protecting freedom of conscience have been poignant here at home as well. We’ve been forced to question how the government found itself fighting the Little Sisters of the Poor, nuns who dedicate their lives to serving the elderly poor.

A month after hearing their case, presented by Becket Law, the Supreme Court unanimously agreed with what the Little Sisters had argued all along: the government has other ways to provide contraception to women who want it without hijacking the nuns’ health plan or forcing them to violate their faith.

We’ve also confronted the idea that it’s okay to infiltrate a Native American religious ceremony to search for supposed “illegal use” of eagle feathers. For the past decade Pastor Robert Soto and many of the Lipan Apache tribe of Texas have been fighting for the return of 50 eagle feathers confiscated during one of their religious services, in what the government dubbed “Operation Powwow.”

Although power plants and wind turbine farms have legal exemptions for eagles killed by their machinery, the government claimed it was illegal for the Lipan Apache to use molten feathers found on the ground. Thankfully, in what the Wall Street Journal called “a victory for religious freedom,” the government ultimately settled the case, returned the feathers, and admitted it was wrong to send an undercover agent to raid the powwow.

Meanwhile, Sikh members of the military are still left questioning when they will be allowed permanent accommodations to both honor their faith and continue their exemplary military service. Nearly a year ago, the Becket Law had to sue to get a temporary accommodation for Captain Simratpal Singh, allowing him to wear his beard and turban while serving, even though thousands are regularly given accommodations for medical or tactical reasons.

Though he received a bronze star for clearing IEDs in Afghanistan, the Army wanted to subject Singh to discriminatory gas mask testing. After Becket Law and the Sikh Coalition filed in court on his behalf under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the military continues to postpone issuing a permanent religious accommodation.

Following a year of questions, this next year should be one of answers.

How can we, as a society stand up against those who try to strip individuals like Captain Singh, the Little Sisters of the Poor and Lipan Apache Elder Robert Soto, of their rights?

The answer is simple: give voice to your convictions.

Melinda Skea is the director of communications of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Texas Apache tribe flies free: Column

USA Today,  July 7, 2016

We went to court, represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and we won, setting new precedent for Native Americans throughout the country. Under theReligious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), our religious rights as Native Americans were protected from unnecessary government intrusion. Last month, the federal government finalized a historic settlement agreement with me and over 400 members of my congregation, recognizing our right to freely use eagle feathers for religious worship. We are now allowed to keep, share, loan, and travel with our eagle feathers, and even obtain new ones from the National Eagle Repository, without any need for a government “permit.” The government also agreed that it will revisit the laws that restrict Native American possession of eagle feathers in the future.

Former Cuban Prisoner: Human-Rights Violations Remain

June 2, 2016, Time 

The Castro regime has long loathed religion, because God is their biggest competition when it comes to rights. How can rights come from Fidel, and now Raul, when there is someone much bigger and greater than they? And how can they seize those rights on a totalitarian whim, when they were never the bestower of rights in the first place? Any dictator knows it’s hard work to compete with God. So the solution is to crush God from civil society.

My view: Obama’s speech at mosque and religious freedom

February 16, 2016, Deseret News

As we continue to think about how best to handle our religious differences, we do well to remember an important lesson about religious freedom. It is a lesson that the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty’s founder Seamus Hasson has taught: “If anyone in America doesn’t have religious liberty, no one in America has religious liberty. … There is no point in sitting around hoping the bear eats you last.”

Thanks to ‘NUN of It’ Court Case Supporters

February 3, 2016, The Tablet

With only a few weeks to go before our day in court, what is left to do in order to ensure the success of our case? Our foundress, Saint Jeanne Jugan, often said, “Pray, you have need of grace … If God is with us, it will be accomplished.” And so we Little Sisters turn to prayer, and ask you to join us in praying for a just resolution to our case, so that we may continue to minister to needy elderly persons across this great nation for many years to come. Please join us in saying “I’ll have NUN of it” with regard to the current threat to our religious liberty!

Atheists Tried to Stop These Christian From Helping Ex-Convicts. What a Judge Then Ruled.

January 29, 2016, The Daily Signal 

The New York-based atheist group, the Center for Inquiry, has spent years trying to stop these ministries from receiving government funding. In a lawsuit originally filed in 2007, the Center for Inquiry argued that because of their religious affiliation, state funding of the ministries violated Florida’s “Blaine Amendment,” a state constitutional provision banning direct and indirect funding of “sectarian” organizations.

Indiana’s RFRA Lessons

National Catholic Register,  April 9, 2015

According to Mark Rienzi, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public interest group that has made the federal RFRA the basis of its legal argument against the Health and Human Services’ mandate, “The original RFRA would give people their day in court; the proposed ‘fix’ would be a green light for driving religious people out of business.”

Read the full article here.

NCAA, if you don’t like Indiana law, go to Cuba: column

April 2, 2015, USA Today

The NCAA recently took a break from basketball to lecture the nation about diversity and inclusiveness. Responding to the passage of a religious freedom restoration act (RFRA) in Indiana, the NCAA tells us that it is “deeply committed to providing an inclusive environment” for all its events. The NCAA said it is “especially concerned” about the new Indiana law and its impact on student-athletes and employees in connection with next weekend’s Final Four in Indianapolis.

Health care law forces choices that violate Christian university’s mission

April 2, 2015, Houston Chronicle

ETBU should never have been put in this position. Freedom of religion – which includes the freedom to believe and act in accordance to your beliefs no matter what the government says – is our most fundamental right. Our rights, after all, do not come from the state; therefore, the state cannot take them away.

Unfortunately, the federal government has devoted countless hours and resources to fighting those who object in the courts – and the Becket Fund has spent the last four years fighting for a fair exemption for religious employers. Apparently, the government really needs to beat down on Americans who don’t sign onto their agenda. These Americans include ETBU, 29 other universities, and religious charities like our clients, the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of Catholic nuns who literally beg to support their homes for the elderly poor.

Kristina Arriaga: Oklahoma Supreme Court needs to side with embattled children

The Oklahoman, March 6, 2015

For the third time in four years, Oklahomans Stephanie and Russell Spry, along with a group of nine other parents of disabled children, are back in court fighting to protect their children’s access to a state scholarship program created precisely for children with disabilities.

In early 2011, a number of these students and their parents, represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, sued the school districts for refusing to issue scholarships. Later that year, the Legislature allowed the Department of Education to issue the scholarships directly. Thinking the matter had been resolved, the parents dismissed their lawsuit.

How a Muslim’s beard might shape Obamacare: Column

USA Today, January 23, 2015

When it comes to American law, no religion is an island. Because our laws treat all religions equally, the “rigorous standard” proclaimed by the Supreme Court protecting Muhammad’s religious liberty also protects the religious liberty of churches, synagogues and religious individuals across the country.

Read the full article here.

Religious freedom applies to businesses

USA Today, August 12, 2013

Our society is better because people and organizations remain free to have other values while earning a living. Does anyone really want a society filled with organizations that can only focus on profits and are barred from thinking of the greater good?

NRO: One HHS Mandate Case Dismissed, Don’t Read Too Much Into It


One HHS Mandate Case Dismissed, Don’t Read Too Much Into It

By: Kyle Duncan

Today’s decision by a federal district court in Nebraska to dismiss one of the many pending lawsuits against the HHS abortion-drug, contraception and sterilization mandate is unfortunate (and in one respect, seriously mistaken). But the decision turns on technicalities and doesn’t decide the merits of the dispute. Bear this context in mind if you should hear anyone trumpeting this decision as some sort of “victory” for the federal government on the religious-liberty questions at the heart of the HHS mandate litigation. It’s nothing of the sort.

The lawsuit was brought by Nebraska and seven other states, as well as three Catholic non-profit organizations (a high school, a charity, and a mutual society), and two individuals. The federal court (senior judge Warren Urbom, a 1970 Nixon appointee) dismissed the lawsuit without prejudice, finding that none of the plaintiffs had “standing” — which means that the court thought that the plaintiffs hadn’t properly claimed any real “injury” from the mandate in their complaint.

As for the non-profits and the individuals, the court relied on a true technicality: It found they hadn’t given specific-enough reasons for why they weren’t “grandfathered.” “Grandfathering” is the idea that you can keep the health plan you had on March 23, 2010 — and so avoid the HHS mandate — provided that you keep it the way it existed on that date in perpetuity. The court simply reasoned that the plaintiffs hadn’t provided enough detail on why their plans weren’t “grandfathered” (one of the plaintiffs, in fact, had admitted their plan was grandfathered). This is a technicality because, presumably, the plaintiffs could simply amend their complaints to provide the necessary details on “grandfathering” the next time around. But, in any event, the decision has nothing to do with the main question of why the mandate violates the Constitution and federal religious-liberty law. It is merely a decision that these particular insurance policies don’t appear to be subject to the mandate to begin with.

As for the states, the court also found they hadn’t alleged a sufficient injury, and so lacked standing. There was a slightly different reason for this conclusion. The states had said they were injured because the mandate would result in employers dropping employee health coverage, and the resulting exodus of employees would swell the Medicaid rolls and throw the states’ budgets into disarray. The court thought this was too conjectural to support standing. Again, this conclusion has nothing to do with the underlying claims about the mandate’s unconstitutionality.

The only place in the decision where the court went seriously awry is on the question of ripeness. (Judge Urbom admitted that this part of the ruling was non-precedential dicta, because he did not have standing to reach it.) Some readers may recall that the federal government announced a “safe harbor” last February, by which it would delay implementation of the HHS mandate for certain religiously-affiliated employers for one year; during that year, said the government, it would come up with some form of “accommodation” that would solve the religious liberty violations in the mandate. Under the “accommodation” the government sketched out, it would (magically?) deem contraception and sterilization “cost neutral” and force insurance companies to provide these drugs and services “for free” to the employees of religious organizations. Religious organizations were quick to point out that, even if this “accommodation” became the law (which it still hasn’t), it wouldn’t solve the mandate’s religious-liberty problems. Organizations would still be facilitating access to the objectionable services through insurance. What’s more, many religious organizations are self-insured, and so the accommodation would be particularly meaningless for them.

And yet Judge Urbom accepted the government’s argument that the promise of this fanciful “accommodation” rendered the lawsuits premature. This is hard to understand. After all, the HHS mandate itself is a final administrative rule; also final is the narrow “religious employer” exemption (which would exclude the ministries of certain well-known religious figures like Jesus and Mother Teresa, because they insisted on ministering to those of other faiths). The government is not proposing to alter either one of those rules. All the government has done is conveniently postpone enforcement of the mandate as to certain objectors for one year, while it promises to brainstorm about ways to make contraceptives “free” and force insurance companies to provide them at no charge and without using taxpayer dollars. Good luck with that.

The bottom line is that Judge Urbom’s ruling today has nothing to do with the fundamental question of freedom: Does the federal government violate religious liberty by forcing religious objectors to pay a fine for the privilege of practicing their faith? At present, there are 22 other cases pending before other federal courts that are poised to answer that question. And even assuming the technical reasons given by the Nebraska court hold water on appeal (which is highly debatable), many of the other pending cases feature plaintiffs who are indisputably not “grandfathered,” who are palpably “injured” by the HHS mandate, and who will feel the ugly effects of that injury as soon as this Fall. Stay tuned for a decision in one — or many — of those cases that will answer the real question of religious freedom at issue in these crucial cases.”

Kyle Duncan is general counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

NYT: Contraception, Against Conscience



Birmingham, Ala. — THIRTY years ago, a cloistered nun named Mother Angelica Rizzo started a small television station in her garage to spread the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Since then the station, EWTN, has grown into one of the largest Catholic media networks in the world, but we haven’t strayed from our values. And we won’t — even though our commitment has landed us in the cross hairs of the Obama administration.

EWTN cannot comply with the recent mandate from the Department of Health and Human Services requiring the insurance plans of all employers, with the exception of some houses of worship, to cover the contraceptives and sterilization procedures approved by the Food and Drug Administration. These include emergency contraceptives like Plan B and Ella that can destroy human embryos — an act that we consider a violation of church teaching that all life is a sacred gift that begins at conception.

Earlier this month, in response to widespread opposition to the mandate, the president announced an “accommodation” for some religious organizations — like, potentially, EWTN — that would shift the responsibility for the coverage from the employer to the employer’s insurance carrier. But this would do nothing to solve the problem. First, EWTN self-insures, so we are the insurer. Second, even if we had an outside insurer, we would still be in the untenable position of facilitating access to drugs that go against our beliefs. And if we refused to comply with the directive, we could be hit with annual fines starting at around $600,000.

The administration’s supporters say that by opposing the rule, religious employers like EWTN are guilty of trying to coerce our employees and impose our values on them. But we are simply choosing not to participate in the use of these drugs. Our 350 employees, many of whom are not Catholic, freely choose to work here and can purchase and use contraception if they want to. They are aware of the values we practice, and I hear regularly from Catholic and non-Catholic employees alike how much they love working for an organization that is defined by its Catholic beliefs — beliefs that we think result in a better workplace and more expansive benefits over all.

Instead, it is the government — which does not accept EWTN’s religious choice and can punish that choice by imposing fines — that is coercing us. But under the Constitution and federal religious liberties law, we cannot be forced to give up our beliefs as the price of participation in the public square. That is why the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty has filed a lawsuit on our behalf seeking to overturn this illegal mandate.

But religious liberty isn’t even the only thing at risk; the mandate also threatens the financial viability of any organization that disagrees with the administration’s politics. They could be forced to stop offering health insurance and be saddled with fines, which are immense competitive disadvantages. They’ll have to take money away from their core missions to pay fines. They’ll lose employees who can’t afford to work for employers who offer no health insurance. They’ll lose donors who are scared off by the penalties.

The end result: organizations that agree with the administration or are willing to compromise their beliefs will thrive. Organizations that don’t will shrink or die.

Businesses will suffer, too. The mandate’s effect will be most visible on not-for-profits like EWTN. But small businesses owned by men and women of faith, which have been given no protection whatsoever in the administration’s accommodation, will also take a hit. While some charities might be able to weather the storm thanks to donations or strong endowments, these small businesses almost certainly won’t.

Mother Angelica didn’t create EWTN to be a weak Catholic voice. Our donors send us money to spread Catholic teachings, not to subvert them. The mandate makes it impossible for us to live up to that core mission, giving us the choice of either compromising our beliefs or being crushed by fines. That ultimatum is unfair, unconstitutional and repugnant — which is why we have no choice but to fight it in court.

Michael P. Warsaw is the president and chief executive officer of EWTN Global Catholic Network, a nonprofit television, radio and media organization.


Click here for article.


Gov. Gregoire vs. Religious Liberty

By WILLIAM P. MUMMA, Wall Street Journal Online

With unemployment above 9 percent Washington governor Christine Gregoire is working hard to shutter small businesses and force workers from their profession. The reason? Some pharmacists and pharmacy owners have religious beliefs that conflict with Gregoire’s agenda, and she would rather put them out of business than accommodate their consciences.

A federal trial that started earlier this week in Washington State is the culmination of a four year battle over this issue. The controversy centers on Plan B and ella, emergency contraceptives that can destroy fertilized eggs, the stage of fetal life that DNA is determined and pro-life ethicists consider to be the beginning of human life. U.S. law and the U.S. medical community have long respected the right of medical professionals, including pharmacists, to refer patients elsewhere when providing certain treatments would violate their conscience. In 2006, the Washington State Board of Pharmacy continued this tolerant tradition when it unanimously confirmed the right of pharmacists to refrain from dispensing medications, such as Plan B, that violated their religious beliefs, and instead to refer patients to a nearby provider.

Letting businesses send customers to a nearby competitor doesn’t sound like much to ask, but it was too much for Gov. Gregoire. Without any evidence that any patient had ever lacked timely access to any drug because of conscientious objectors, or for any reason, the governor insisted that every pharmacy needed to dispense emergency contraception on demand. She publicly reprimanded Board members for their “mistake” and promised “to help them get the right answer”—and threatened to replace them if they didn’t. She then appointed local Planned Parenthood and NARAL leaders to the Board during the rulemaking process, and took the unprecedented step of having Planned Parenthood and NARAL screen new candidates. Unsurprisingly, the Board buckled and—over the objection of the State Pharmacy Association—eliminated the conscience protections.

The new regulations quickly hurt Washington state pharmacists and small business owners with conscientious objections to dispensing Plan B.

Margo Thelen has worked as a licensed pharmacist for more than 35 years. She cannot in good conscience dispense Plan B due to the drug’s abortifiacient potential. Now her employer can no longer afford to accommodate her, and she lost her job. Rhonda Mesler manages a pharmacy; she will likely lose her job if the regulations stand. Stormans, Inc., is a family-owned businesses that operates a pharmacy in Olympia. The Stormans believe that human life begins at fertilization, and they cannot in good conscience allow their store to dispense Plan B, though they’re willing to refer customers to any of the 33 nearby pharmacies that do. Their business soon became the target of a state investigation. The governor’s mansion piled on to the boycott that ensued, setting a powerful example by cancelling its own account with another Stormans store. After years of litigation and false promises by the state, the case will go to trial in late November.

Unfortunately, attacks on freedom of conscience in the healthcare industry are becoming more frequent. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently issued new guidelines listing “preventative care” benefits for women that all insurance plans must cover, without copay or deductible. Some of the requirements are benign, like requiring that cancer screenings be covered. However, the guidelines also demand that employers cover every FDA-form of sterilization and contraception that FDA has ever approved, including controversial emergency contraceptives like ella and Plan B.

Many employers have religious objections to providing coverage for “treatments” they view as immoral, and some religious groups asked for robust religious exemptions. Instead, HHS offered what some might call “abstinence only” conscience protection: a narrow exemption that protects only churches and religious orders that abstain from hiring or helping people outside their own religion. Religious schools, hospitals and charities, and even churches that dare to reach beyond the boundaries of their own faith, wouldn’t be protected. Ironically, seminaries and monasteries appear to be about the only institutions that clearly are protected.

The Obama administration has already signaled its enthusiasm for forcing religious institutions to cover contraception. In 2009, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) accused Belmont Abbey College, a Catholic college run by Benedictine monks, of “gender discrimination” because it refused to include birth control in its employees’ health-care plan. Cases like this are popping up around the country, and forcing religious freedom groups like the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty to come to the rescue. While they may have won for the Benedictine monks, the hydra threat will grow ever harder to defeat. And the new regulations are just another tool for the government to use in clamping down on conscience rights.

Federal and state lawmakers have long used religious exemptions to advance their policy agendas while respecting “the conscientious scruples” of dissenters, as George Washington put it. So why the change? What motivation could Governor Gregoire and friends have for forcing people to do something they object to on religious grounds?

America’s struggling economy can’t afford more boarded up businesses, just because some in government power find conscience protections unsavory. More fundamentally, neither can the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Mr. Mumma is the President of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.


Posted on Wall Street Journal Online.

Read more about this case here.

Sebelius’ War Lands Her in Court

by MARK L. RIENZI 11/10/2011

Early last month, President Obama bragged to a St. Louis crowd about the recent Health and Human Services’ regulations that will require thousands of religious employers to pay for contraception, sterilization and drugs that probably cause abortions. The crowd cheered the president’s contraceptive mandate. He joined their revelry, shouting, “Darn Tootin’!” to the crowd’s delight.

The same week, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius addressed a NARAL Pro-Choice America fundraiser. She told the raucous crowd that “we are in a war” and boasted of the regulation that forces religious objectors to choose between violating their religion and kicking their employees off of health insurance.

Yesterday, Nov. 9, Secretary Sebelius’ war against religious objectors landed her someplace she and the administration can expect to receive less applause: federal court.

The plaintiff is Belmont Abbey College, a small Catholic college in Belmont, N.C. The college was founded in 1876 by a congregation of Benedictine monks, who built the campus with bricks they formed by hand from the red clay of the North Carolina soil. They still sponsor and run the college to this day. True to its Catholic identity, the college does not provide contraceptives, sterilization or abortions for its students or employees.

The federal government was well aware of Belmont Abbey’s religious objections. In fact, President Obama’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been investigating the Catholic college for more than two years for its refusal to pay for contraceptives and abortions. Nor are the monks of Belmont Abbey alone in the fact that their religion forbids them from buying these services. Tens of thousands of other religious individuals and organizations filed written comments with HHS, asking the administration to refrain from forcing them to violate their beliefs.

But Secretary Sebelius is at war. Rather than provide the type of complete and universal protection for religious freedom required by the Constitution and federal law, Secretary Sebelius offered the stingiest religious-exemption clause in federal history.

The clause only protects churches and religious orders, only protects them if their purpose is the inculcation of the faith, and only if they serve and hire people primarily of their own faith. Want to run a school with your church? You lose the exemption. Want to serve soup to Jewish, Muslim or atheist homeless people as well as Christian ones? You lose the exemption. Want to allow a diverse group of students to attend your college? Fine, but you have to pay for drugs that cause abortions now.

Because Belmont Abbey College is not a church, and because it serves and employs people of all faiths, it probably does not qualify to have its religious beliefs protected. The new regulations also force the monks and other religious objectors to pay for speech with which they disagree. These employers and schools now have to pay for their employees and students to receive “counseling and education” about contraceptives and sterilization. So the monks at Belmont Abbey can preach against contraception and sterilization all they like on Sunday morning. But on Monday, Secretary Sebelius will make them pay someone else to send the exact opposite message.

None of this is remotely permissible under the Constitution or federal law. The Founders explicitly protected the free exercise of religion in the First Amendment. That right extends to all of us, and the government has no power to limit it only to those who teach the faith for a living or only to those who limit their charity and employment opportunities to people of the same faith. Federal statutes rightly forbid the government from imposing these kinds of burdens on our free exercise of religion. The First Amendment protects all of us from being forced to speak the government’s message instead of our own.

Secretary Sebelius and the administration left the monks of Belmont Abbey with no choice but to sue — they could either allow the administration to run roughshod over their religious beliefs, kick all of their students and employees off of health insurance in the middle off a terrible economy or bring their claims to federal court. So the small Catholic college from North Carolina just brought its slingshot to Washington, D.C.

Secretary Sebelius wanted a war. Apparently, now she’ll have one in federal court. Darn tootin’.

Mark L. Rienzi is professor of constitutional law at The Catholic University of America and an attorney with The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents Belmont Abbey College.


Defending Our First Freedom

Archbishop José H. Gomez

We are slowly losing our sense of religious liberty in America.

There is much evidence to suggest that our society no longer values the public role of religion or recognizes the importance of religious freedom as a basic right. As scholars like Harvard’s Mary Ann Glendon and Michael Sandel have observed, our courts and government agencies increasingly treat the right to hold and express religious beliefs as only one of many private lifestyle options. And, they observe, this right is often “trumped” in the face of challenges from competing rights or interests deemed to be more important.

These are among the reasons the U.S. Catholic bishops recently established a new Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. My brother bishops and I are deeply concerned that believers’ liberties—and the Church’s freedom to carry out her mission—are threatened today, as they never have been before in our country’s history.

Catholics have always believed that we serve our country best as citizens when we are trying to be totally faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ and his Church. And since before the founding of the American Republic, Catholics—individually and institutionally—have worked with government agencies at all levels to provide vital social services, education, and health care.

But lately, this is becoming harder and harder for us to do. Just last week, the federal government declined a grant request from the U.S. bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services agency. We are not really sure why. No reason was given. Our agency has been working well with the government since 2006 to help thousands of women and children who are victims of human trafficking.

Recently, the government had been demanding that our agency provide abortions, contraception and sterilizations for the women we serve. We hope our application was not denied because we refused to provide these services that are unnecessary and violate our moral principles and religious mission.

And this is not an isolated case. Right now, the federal government is also trying to force private employers to provide insurance coverage for sterilizations and contraception—including for medications that cause abortions. This not only violates the consciences of Catholic business owners, it also undermines the religious autonomy of Church employers.

For several years now, it seems that whenever there is a merger or expansion involving a Catholic hospital, some legislator or government agency tries to block it unless our Catholic hospitals and doctors will start providing abortions and sterilizations. So far, these efforts at coercion have failed. What’s troubling is that these efforts continue, without regard to the historic contributions of Catholic health care or to the First Amendment.

More recently, the push to legalize “same-sex marriages” has posed a new set of challenges to our freedoms. Church adoption and foster-care ministries have already been forced to shut down rather than submit to government demands that they place children with same-sex couples or provide benefits for same-sex employees.

And in an ominous development, the U.S. Justice Department went on record this summer as saying that those who defend the traditional definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman are motivated by bias and prejudice.

Of course, that is our ancient Catholic belief, rooted in the teachings of Jesus and also the Jewish Scriptures. It is a belief held by many Protestants, the Orthodox, and also by Jews and Muslims, among others. But scholars like Princeton’s Robert P. George warn that this belief might now be labeled as a form of bigotry and lead to new challenges to our liberties.

We are also concerned about the signals the federal government is sending in a case now before the U.S. Supreme Court, Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC. Experts say that if the government’s case prevails, it will have broad new powers to regulate the inner workings of Church institutions—even to possibly interfere in areas of Church practice and doctrine.

All of this is troubling and represents a sharp break with our history and American traditions. Religious liberty has always been “the first freedom” in our Bill of Rights and in our national identity. Our country’s founders recognized that religious freedom is a right endowed by God, not a privilege granted by government. And they respected that what God has given, no one—not a court, a legislature, or any institution—can rightly deny.

In our history, religious freedom has always included the rights of churches and religious institutions to establish hospitals, schools, charities, media outlets, and other agencies—and to staff these ministries and run them, free from government intrusion.

And religious freedom has always included the churches’ rights to engage in the public square to help shape our nation’s moral and social fabric. We see this throughout our history—from the abolitionist movement, to the civil rights movement, to the pro-life movement.

America’s founders understood that our democracy depends on Americans’ being moral and virtuous. They knew the best guarantee for this is a civil society in which individuals and religious institutions were free to live, act, and vote according to their values and principles. We need to help our leaders today rediscover the wisdom of America’s founding. And we need to help believers once more understand the vital importance of this “first freedom.” At stake are not just our liberties but also the future character of our democracy.

José H. Gomez is the Archbishop of Los Angeles.


This piece was originally posted here.

The Washington Post: Theology up for debate at SCOTUS?

From homeland security to healthcare, the federal government now has the power to reach further than ever into American society. But so far, the feds have sensibly stayed out of the business of appointing religious leaders.

Now, in a stunning about-face, the Obama Administration has urged the Supreme Court to allow courts to decide virtually any dispute between a church and its ministers. In the administration’s view, juries and judges, not congregations and bishops, should have the final say on who is fit for religious ministry. Fundamental questions of theology would be resolved in the same way as slip-and-fall cases. Plaintiffs’ lawyers would go into a religious feeding frenzy.

The DOJ made this astounding declaration in its brief for a Supreme Court case called Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which some observers have called the most important religious freedom case in 20 years.

The case started when Cheryl Perich, a former teacher at a church-run grade school, wanted to return from a disability-related leave of absence. The school, which is part of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, had far exceeded its legal obligations in accommodating her disability. But when some board members expressed concern that she wasn’t medically ready for work, she threatened to sue for discrimination.

That threat had serious religious implications. Like many denominations, the Lutheran Church has long taught that Christians should resolve their disputes within the church, not in secular courts. Perich’s threat publicly rejected that teaching.

Perich, moreover, wasn’t just any employee, but a “called” teacher. Besides teaching secular subjects like science and English, she was a Lutheran “commissioned minister” who was expected to lead her students in prayer, to provide their primary religious instruction, and lead them in worship. In her church’s view, Perich’s refusal to follow Lutheran teaching on dispute resolution made it impossible for her to carry out these religious duties. Accordingly, the congregation voted to rescind her call.

Perich and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) responded by suing the church. A federal district court dismissed the case, finding that it would be inappropriate for judges to second-guess a church’s decision about who should carry out important religious duties. After an appeals court reversed that outcome, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, which is set for argument on October 5.

The key issue in the case is an obscure doctrine with big consequences. The doctrine, called the “ministerial exception,” bars most employment-related lawsuits brought against religious organizations by employees performing religious functions.

The point of the ministerial exception isn’t that churches always behave well (they don’t), or that they’re above the law (they’re not). Rather, it recognizes if ministerial employees could sue for discrimination, courts would need to determine whether religious organizations had made the “right” decisions about hiring and firing their ministers. Those kinds of essentially religious decisions are above secular courts’ pay grade.

The lower courts have acknowledged the ministerial exception for forty years. The EEOC’s own compliance manual acknowledges it. So do Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the ACLU, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief against the church. Until last month, both sides assumed that the question before the court was whether the ministerial exception applied to Perich-not whether it exists.

As we explained in our brief for Hosanna-Tabor, “This would be a revolution in relations between church and state.”

This isn’t the first time the Obama administration has sought to control religious communities’ decisions about their employees. Last month, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued new guidelines listing “preventative care” benefits for women that all insurance plans must cover, without copay or deductible. These included every FDA-approved mode of sterilization and contraception, including emergency contraceptives that can destroy fertilized eggs. The only employers exempt from this requirement are churches and religious orders – but only if they don’t help or hire people outside their own faith. As a result, thousands of religious schools, hospitals, and other charities must now choose between breaking the law and violating their consciences.

If the Supreme Court buys the DOJ’s argument, many religious communities will face a similarly stark choice: either accept ministers that they consider unfit, or endure endless litigation. The liability would be crippling – not only for churches, but for religious liberty.

William P. Mumma is the president of the Becket Fund, a non-profit, public- interest law firm that defends religious liberty.

Click here to read the original article.

National Catholic Register- “Obamacare: Mandated Contraception Collides With Religious Freedom”

Kevin J. ‘Seamus’ Hasson, founder of The Becket Fund, authored an article in the National Catholic Register regarding Obamacare and its possible effects on religious liberty.

Below is an excerpt from this important piece:

Has the Obama administration found a cure for the common conscience? The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is expected to let us know on Monday.

HHS is preparing a list of “preventative services for women” that every insurance plan must cover, without co-pay or deductible, under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, popularly known as “Obamacare.” In a time-honored bureaucratic maneuver, HHS referred the question of what to include to a tame outside organization it could count on to give it the advice it wanted: It asked the Institute of Medicine (IOM), a nominally independent, if pliant, nonprofit, to identify the services that should be mandated.

To continue reading click here. Graffiti is illegal; anti-Islam remarks are not

Just as patriotism was renewed while Americans mourned on 9/11, it flourishes again less than 10 years later as we celebrate the long-awaited justice finally served by Osama bin Laden’s death.

But while we celebrate, we must guard against condemning Islam as the force behind bin Laden’s reign of terror. As President Obama stated in his speech announcing the mass murderer’s death, we are not at war with Islam. Bin Laden and his extremist cohorts have wreaked havoc on Muslims and non-Muslims alike, across the globe.

Continue reading this piece at CNN.

Europe’s Religion Delusion

The Wall Street Journal – December 11, 2009

“Three children walk into a European state school – a Muslim, a Sikh, and an atheist. The Muslim and the Sikh are expelled because they wear religious clothing: a headscarf for the Muslim girl, and a turban for the Sikh boy. The atheist is welcomed into the school, but feels uncomfortable because her classroom has a crucifix on the wall. Whose religious freedom has been violated?”