Today, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty released a statement, Our First, Most Cherished Liberty, calling on Catholics and others to resist what the bishops characterize as unprecedented threats to religious freedom. The statement calls for a national campaign of political and legal resistance. It also urges Catholics to participate in a Fortnight for Freedom leading up to this year's Fourth of July holiday, during which they are asked to study, pray, and protest against the supposed efforts of government to curtail the free exercise of religion. Among the bishops' concerns are the recent HHS contraception mandate, harsh immigration laws, the denial of federal funding to Catholic social-service agencies, and the closing of Catholic adoption services because of the church's refusal to place children with gay parents.
The bishops are right to call for vigilance on behalf of religious liberty. There are influential currents of opinion today that advocate restricting the presence of religion in public life and would reduce religious liberty to the freedom of individuals or congregations to worship as they please. That is not the American way. There should be considerable room for government to cooperate with religious groups as with other non-governmental bodies in serving the common good. Unfortunately, the argument made by the bishops as well as their proposed tactics for public action undermine their case. Worse, the tenor of the bishops' statement runs the risk of making this into a partisan issue during a presidential election in which the leaders of one party have made outlandish claims about a war on religion or a war against the Catholic Church.
The USCCB's statement vastly exaggerates the extent to which American freedoms of all sorts and religious freedom in particular are threatened. Church-state relations are complicated, requiring the careful weighing of competing moral claims. The USCCB's statement fails to acknowledge that fact. Worse, strangely absent from the list of examples provided by the bishops is the best-documented case of growing hostility to religious presence in the United States: hostility to Islam. Unless the bishops correct that oversight, their statement will only feed the impression that this campaign for religious freedom has been politically tailored. This silence is especially striking in view of the parallels between anti-Muslim sentiment today and the prejudice encountered by Catholic immigrants in the nineteenth century. If religious freedom becomes a partisan issue, its future is sure to grow dimmer, not brighter. Religious liberty, absolutely. Partisan politics, no.