Welcome to the fifth annual Fortnight for Freedom (F4F). In case you missed its start, we are actually in the middle of it. And even though an Administration friendly to the conscience rights of believers now holds the White House, recent developments have shown why the F4F is as important as ever.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, the Fortnight is a two week period of prayer, action, and meditation that lasts from June 21 through July 4. Its dates were chosen in part to coincide with the memorials of several notable saints who underwent martyrdom. These include Thomas More, John Cardinal Fisher, Thomas the Apostle, John the Baptist (his nativity), the Roman brother martyrs John and Paul, and lesser known holy figures such as Eurosia, to name just a few.
While established by the United States bishops in 2012, its genesis is found in 2011. That year, in a truly remarkable move, the Obama Administration refused to fulfill one of the executive branch’s key functions, namely defending and enforcing the nation’s laws, in particular the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which President Bill Clinton signed in 1996.
In an open letter to President Barack Obama that year, Timothy Cardinal Dolan wrote, “The [Administration] has shifted from not defending DOMA — which is problem enough, given the duty of the executive branch to enforce even laws it disfavors — to actively attacking DOMA’s constitutionality.”
This would, he noted, “precipitate a national conflict between church and state of enormous proportions and to the detriment of both institutions.” Catholics, His Eminence noted, “cannot remain silent when federal steps harmful to marriage, the laws defending it and religious freedom continue apace.”
But the issue wasn’t just the government’s attempt to redefine marriage. It was the public square’s relentless assault on people of faith’s rights of conscience. People have been fired from jobs, kicked out of Master’s programs, denied work, and publicly vilified for living by beliefs that are as old as the sands.
When this writer worked in the California Legislature, bills were passed that said even religious employers had to include contraception coverage in their employees’ healthcare benefits. Another would have forced pharmacists to prescribe drugs such as abortifacents, regardless of their beliefs. Still another would have forced all medical school students studying to be OB/GYNs to learn how to perform abortions, even if that violated their conscience.
The contraception bill became law, and the California Catholic Conference sued to have the measure overturned. The case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) but was upheld on a 5-4 vote.
There were (and are) similar cases nationwide. As such, in an effort to combat attacks on personal and institutional religious liberty, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, proposed the Fortnight of Freedom. The rest is, as they say, history.
With an Administration in power that is friendly to religious freedom, some will wonder whether the Fortnight is still needed or even relevant. After all, didn’t President Trump issue an executive order promoting free speech and religious liberty?
And there have been other encouraging developments on the religious freedom front:
- A federal appeals court upheld a Mississippi religious liberty law.
- Texas has enacted a similar statute aimed at avoiding situations similar to those that forced Catholic dioceses in Boston, Washington, DC, and Illinois from abandoning the adoption business.
- On June 26, SCOTUS essentially ruled that so-called Blaine Laws in places such as Missouri were unconstitutional, effectively overturning those laws.
In addition, SCOTUS has agreed to hear the appeal of a Colorado baker who refused to provide a cake for a same sex union.
So in the midst of these positive developments, one can understand the impulse to say, “Mission Accomplished,” regarding the F4F. But as with the notorious image of former President George W. Bush featuring those words, this would be premature.
The State of California recently expanded an existing travel ban for government employees to states whose laws, it says, institutionalize “bigotry.” The states include the two listed above. All have recently enacted so-called “bathroom bills” or religious conscience protection measures. Massachusetts and New York are considering similar moves.
And then consider the headlines accompanying news that Texas Governor Greg Abbott had signed the aforementioned measure. For instance, NBC’s went like this: “‘License to Discriminate’: Texas Governor Signs Controversial Adoption Bill.”
In carrying news of the appeals court decision, Mississippi’s main newspaper ran an accompanying photo that prominently featured a critic holding a sign that read, “No Hate in Our State.”
Make no mistake: Many powerful and influential people believe your desire to live according to your faith-informed conscience is in actuality thinly veiled bigotry and hate. They will say you are animated not by an appropriate fear of God but prejudice.
Take, for example, former United States Commission on Civil Rights Chairman Martin Castro, who wrote in a 2016 report, “The phrases ‘religious liberty’ and ‘religious freedom’ … remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance.”
Castro did not randomly chosen his words. Social conservatives lost the legal battle over marriage’s definition in part because of the far Left’s great success in getting average people to accept its contention that opposition to same sex unions was “bigotry” and “discrimination.”
Never mind that not even “gay friendly” ancient Rome and Greece allowed same-sex unions, nor had any culture in history. Never mind that few people would have thought twice about the traditional definition of marriage five years ago. The Left proved so successful in moving the needle in such a quick span of time that the SCOTUS decision of June 2015 legalizing same sex unions was basically a foregone conclusion.
Now the Left is trying to repeat that triumph vis-à-vis religious conscience. Less than twenty years ago, many would have agreed that religious liberty is America’s first freedom. After all, the Founders placed this liberty at the head of the Bill of Rights. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “No provision in our constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of civil authority.”
Today in an age of safe spaces, agreement with Jefferson is quickly fading. If we are not careful, “religious liberty” soon will be as synonymous with “bigotry” as “states’ rights” has become with “racism.”
Former presidential candidate and United States Senator Bernie Sanders recently went so far as to publicly oppose the candidacy of Russell Vought, President Trump’s pick for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. Why? Is Vought bad at math? Is he otherwise unqualified?
Far from it. Rather Vought is a devout Evangelical, and he once wrote an article for a religious publication that stated what Christianity has always taught, namely that no one is saved but through Jesus. Was Vought planning on imposing those beliefs in the workplace? No. That didn’t matter to Sen. Sanders, however, who accused him of, you guessed it, “racism and bigotry.” Some on the Left called Bernie a “hero” for standing up to “the bigotry and prejudice of Christian extremists.”
So, sadly, the F4F is needed now more than ever. And when this year’s commemoration is over, all people of goodwill need to continue its work by cooperating with and supporting groups such as the Religious Freedom Institute and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
We don’t have to see basic religious beliefs equated in public opinion with humanity’s worst impulses. Keeping that from happening, however, won’t happen all by itself.