Bishops' Statement on Religious Liberty Misses the Mark

In a recent letter to our elected officials, I expressed pride in the U.S. Catholic Church’s support of religious liberty. Over recent years, the bishops in particular have offered a necessary check on certain federal agencies that have not prioritized our first and most cherished liberty. Since the “HHS mandate” became a major topic of debate, I have explained the position of the USCCB countless times in myriad settings: classrooms, meetings, in print, on air, as an invited panelist, or simply over coffee to friends who didn’t understand the issues at stake.

But the document released yesterday by the USCCB on religious liberty is a major disappointment. Far from reading the signs of the times, this document makes it seem like its authors can’t read at all—at least not the daily news.

I don’t level this criticism lightly. My customary and habitual attitude toward episcopal authority in the public sphere is deferential. I am on good terms with my own bishop, one of the document’s authors. But a document on religious liberty today that does not mention Muslims or migrants is simply unacceptable.

The most pressing threat to religious liberty in our country right now concerns Muslims and those falsely assumed to be Muslims (e.g. Sikhs) by know-nothing aggressors. Anti-Muslim sentiment has been exacerbated by the floating of ideas about a Muslim registry during last year’s presidential campaign and now by the proposed travel ban on certain countries with large Muslim populations. And Sikhs are constantly harassed or even killed for their appearance, even in their place of worship.

Instead of incorporating these pressing matters into a broad statement on religious liberty, the bishops emphasize only the matters from the Obama administration, “such as health coverage, adoption, accreditation, tax exemption, and government grants and contracts.” These are worthy goals; they attempt to fine-tune our system of religious liberty for Christians, which already functions quite well. The statement goes on to hope that, with this new leadership, “basic protections for religious practice may be restored and even strengthened.”

But what is more “basic” as a religious liberty protection than the freedom to peaceably assemble with one’s coreligionists, or to walk down the street wearing one’s religious clothing? What is more basic in American history than to not need to register’s one’s individual religious affiliation with the government or worry that one’s house of worship is under surveillance?

The document concludes by saying it focuses on “the most vulnerable of Americans.” But there is no way to look at America and conclude that Christian employers negotiating the details of health insurance premium support are the most vulnerable people in our society.

Nor do the bishops mention the second most important religious liberty issue at stake right now, which is the plight of migrants—both those who want to come here to escape religious persecution and those already here who fear deportation.

But just a few years ago, the excellent 2012 document of the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty eloquently criticized immigration laws that would prevent pastors from carrying out their religious duties to the Catholics in their pastoral care. In contrast with that statement, notably absent from the list of authors of the current statement is Bishop Daniel Flores, who is busy serving the needs of Catholics in border towns and organizing his brother bishops in evangelism and service to them.

Perhaps he was not available for this new document on religious liberty because he convened other bishops and the faithful this week to offer “spiritual, legal and material assistance to immigrants in the face of President Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration.” 

“We have seen the pain, the fear, and the anguish suffered by the persons who have come to us, who may be facing having to live among us in the periphery of our society. They have lived under the constant threat of deportation and have suffered the fear of the possible separation from their families.”

The most basic religious freedoms do not involve taxes or bureaucratic forms. Religious liberty—the kind that is "first, and most cherished"—means not to be harassed, surveilled, or killed for one’s religion. And to welcome those fleeing such conditions abroad, to the extent that we can, and prevent those conditions within our borders. In addition to these basics, keeping religious families intact ought also to be at the center of our church’s mission during these times.

The signs of these times are not hard to read.

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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