Sunday, April 12, 2015

USCCB Statement on "Religious Freedom" Bills: We Want Private Businesses Declared Persons with Right to Discriminate

The U.S. Catholic bishops are on the defensive about what happened recently in Indiana and Arkansas. Last week, having found themselves very much on the wrong side of the issue and of the cultural movement to support the human rights of LGBT people, they uploaded a statement about the state "religious freedom" bills to the USCCB website. It does not mention either the Indiana or the Arkansas situations, but is clearly addressing what happened in both states.

The USCCB statement maintains the following:

1. The state "religious freedom" bills are modeled on the federal RFRA act and do nothing more than the federal RFRA already does.

1a. This is untrue, of course. The state "religious freedom" bills are not modeled on the federal RFRA. In announcing their intention to "fix" their state bills, both Governor Pence in Indiana and Governor Hutchinson noted that their state bills did not conform to the federal RFRA, and that their "fix" would make them conform to the federal RFRA. 
1b. If the state-level "religious freedom" bills do the same thing that the federal legislation does, then why are they even being considered? What's the need for them? They are obviously being pushed by various states because they do something that goes well beyond the federal RFRA: they push the Supreme Court Hobby Lobby ruling in the direction of declaring private businesses "persons" that have religious conviction, on whose basis those private-businesses-as-fictive-persons should be permitted to discriminate.  
1c. This is a position the U.S. Catholic bishops have themselves pushed ever since they started their bogus "religious freedom" crusade in response to the Obama administration's contraception mandate in the Affordable Care act.

2. Neither the federal RFRA act nor the state-level "religious freedom" bills permit or encourage discrimination against LGBT citizens.

2a. This is flatly untrue in the case of the bill that was considered last year in Arizona, with the strong support of the Arizona Catholic bishops, in the case of the bill in Indiana, which the bishops of that state also strongly supported, and in the case of the bill in Arkansas, in favor of which the Catholic bishop of Arkansas has also spoken. 
2b. The uproar over the bills considered in every one of those states occurred because people recognized — people far and wide recognized — that they were discriminatory in their very intent and were designed to give cover to private business owners who want to claim religious grounds for refusing goods and services to LGBT people.

3. And here's the conclusion to (and heart of) what the bishops want to say about these state-level "religious freedom" initiatives — a conclusion that puts the lie to their claim that the state-level bills are identical to the federal legislation, and that they are not discriminatory in their intent. The bishops state in conclusion,

Sometimes, however, strongly held religious beliefs that are considered in the mainstream more broadly—such as the view that marriage is only the union of one man and one woman—have fallen into the minority in some local contexts. As a result, local laws are passed to penalize conduct based on those deeply-held beliefs with insufficient religious exemption, and sometimes none at all. Recent examples, particularly in the context of marriage, include the florist in Washington State, the photographer in New Mexico, and the bakers in Colorado and Oregon. Their conscientious objections to state or local antidiscrimination laws do not amount to “unjust discrimination,” and in fact, rightly deserve the strong protection of the law. Without RFRA, they are unprotected, but with RFRA, they have a fair opportunity to make their case. 

Do you see what the U.S. bishops are saying here? They're saying that 

3a. They want private businesses to be recognized as "persons" capable of having religious convictions on the basis of which they should be allowed to discriminate against LGBT people (the sole group of people represented in each example the bishops provide). 
3b. They want state-level laws that give these private-businesses-as-persons a leg up in court, so that their discriminatory actions will be difficult for anyone to challenge, since those actions would have legal backing from state-level "religious freedom" legislation. 
3c. The reason the bishops want to see such laws enacted is that they recognize that the position they are defending, a "right to discriminate" position when LGBT people are under consideration, is increasingly considered a minority position in many parts of the country. (The truth is that this position is now considered a minority position in much of the nation, and the bishops are simply not speaking the truth when they say that the "mainstream" of American society rejects the notion of marriage equality — as they surely know from one poll after another demonstrating that the position they are defending vis-a-vis gay marriage is on the losing side of history.) 
3d. The bishops are arguing for the "right" of a minority of citizens of the U.S. to seek to coerce the majority of citizens of the U.S., via legislation permitting open, raw discrimination, and for the "right" of a minority of citizens to ignore non-discrimination laws insofar as they do not like those laws for ostensible religious reasons.  
3e. They are arguing that, as a major cultural shift occurs, placing the anti-human-rights position that the Catholic hierarchy have chosen to take at this point in history vis-a-vis LGBT people on the wrong side of this major cultural shift, legal mechanisms need to be put into place that give an embattled minority, which finds itself on the wrong side of an historic battle about human rights, a legal leg up in courts.

Take their argument and replace "LGBT people" (the people represented in every example the bishops offer here) with "black people," and you'll see how reprehensible this argument is: as society shifts in such a way that discrimination against African Americans on racial grounds becomes troublesome and even despicable to a majority of citizens, we want to see legal mechanisms set in place that protect the minority, the minority view. We want to see the minority protected with legal language that permits the minority to claim that its religious views do not allow it to treat people of color fairly.

This is a loathsome position for the pastoral leaders of a major religious tradition to find themselves taking. It calls into serious question everything that is being said about the church of mercy and open arms, the church that is a field hospital for wounded people, by Pope Francis. 

It also exposes all of the "liberal" Catholic commentators who could not do enough to sign onto the bishops' bogus "religious freedom" crusade from its inception and who continue to defend this crusade while calling on the bishops to tone down some of the anti-gay rhetoric as, well, I'll say it flatly: it exposes them as unprincipled bigots, who do not in any credible way represent what we're being told is a new pastoral tone, a new pastoral outreach, on the part of the top leaders of the Catholic church.

The Catholic church in the U.S. needs and deserves much better pastoral leadership, both in its bishops and in its academic and media elites. And if Pope Francis allows this level of pastoral leadership to continue to be the norm in the U.S. Catholic church while he speaks of mercy and field hospitals to mend wounded lives, then he will have made himself party to the betrayal of sound pastoral leadership in this national church, too. And he'll have made his words about mercy and field hospitals mean about as much as sounding brass means.

(I'm grateful to Brandon Meister for emailing me the link to the USCCB statement.)

The graphic is from Relando Thompkins-Jones at Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian, who says that a member of the Facebook community of that blog, Saman Waquad, created the graphic. 

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