Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Jun 19, 2020 / 04:27 pm (CNA).- For Religious Freedom Week 2020, the U.S. Catholic bishops are highlighting an unusual case—a Texas chapel that could be demolished or cut off by construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall.
The historic La Lomita Chapel in Mission, Texas, built in 1865 and owned by the Diocese of Brownsville, is administered by the nearby Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church. In 2018, the Trump administration informed the diocese that it planned to survey the property where the chapel is located to possibly construct the U.S.-Mexico border wall on the property.
The Diocese of Brownsville has fought the construction and the surveying of the land in court, and on June 26, during Religious Freedom Week, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) will ask Catholics to pray for their case.
Beginning on June 22, the feast of Saints Thomas More and John Fisher, and running through June 29, the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, the week will advocate the Church’s work “For the Good of All” in ministries such as education, social services, and health care.
“The freedom of the Church is a foundational aspect of religious freedom,” Chieko Noguchi, a spokeswoman for the conference, told CNA.
“Freedom of the Church means that the Church cannot be impeded by the civil authorities from engaging in her mission. That mission includes ministry to those fleeing violence and poverty,” she said.
Religious Freedom Week is an annual time of advocacy by the bishops’ conference to draw attention to religious freedom issues of the day. The effort began in 2012 with the Fortnight for Freedom, a period of prayer, fasting, and advocacy from June 21 until July 4, Independence Day.
The initial fortnight called attention to the HHS contraceptive mandate which threatened Catholic charities and orders such as the Little Sisters of the Poor, as well as state laws that forbade churches from “harboring” undocumented immigrants in ministering to them.
Now, the fortnight has become Religious Freedom Week, and this year’s week focuses on issues including religious freedom in health care, the persecution of Catholics and of ethnic Uighur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Hui Muslims in China, and religious conflict in the Central African Republic.
And on June 26, the Brownsville diocese case will be highlighted by the USCCB.
According to the government’s plan for surveying the diocesan property, the chapel could end up on the southern side of the border wall, which would pose serious difficulties for those looking to access the chapel from the north.
“I don’t want to use church property to say that no matter how dire your life is, you cannot be received here,” Bishop Daniel Flores told the Wall Street Journal in December. “The government is going to have to take the land. The church is not going to give it them.”
The diocese opposed the plan in court under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). That 1993 law requires the government to, when it places a substantial burden on someone’s free exercise of religion, prove that its action has a “compelling governmental interest” and is the least-restrictive means of advancing that interest. Georgetown University’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection represented the diocese in court.
In February of 2019, a federal district court judge ruled that the government could survey the land for the possible construction, as it would not necessarily need access to the chapel to do so.
Shortly after the decision, a congressional funding compromise appropriated more than $1 billion for the border wall but included a clause prohibiting construction of a wall on the La Lomita property, as well as several other locations on the border.
President Trump, however, declared a national emergency after he signed the compromise into law, which allowed him to divert more funding toward the wall and which technically was not subject to the limitations of Congress against constructing the wall in certain areas.
Trump’s declaration, as a justification for funding the border wall, is still being considered by courts. In February of 2020, he extended the national emergency declaration for another year.
On June 26, the USCCB is asking Catholics to pray for the diocese’s case that the chapel not be affected by the border wall.
The bishops’ conference is also calling on Catholics to educate themselves about the law in question, RFRA, which it says is “under attack” by proposed legislation in Congress that would undermine it.
“The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) has provided persons of all faiths with protection against government intrusion,” the conference says, noting that the proposed Equality Act and Do No Harm Act would threaten RFRA.
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