Letters & Op-Eds 2015

Catholics for Choice Update: Bishops Use Fortnight for Freedom to Lobby for the Right to Discriminate

The so-called Fortnight for Freedom is an annual campaign organized by the Unites States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), ostensibly to promote religious liberty. It uses an auspicious feast day to start—on the church’s calendar, June 21 marks when two martyrs who suffered political persecution, St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, were killed under Henry VIII—and ends on July 4, the American Independence Day. But the campaign uses freedom and flag to cloak the bishops’ real objective: lobbying for the right to discriminate against anyone who disagrees with them.

Their campaign to redefine religious liberty is dangerous. Underneath their rhetoric, the bishops really want to protect their access to billions in federal contracts while keeping a license to ignore laws meant to protect against discrimination. They want to take taxpayer money to help care for someone with HIV and not give that person — through condoms, medication and counseling — the ability to live and love as HIV positive. They want the right to deny victims of sex trafficking critical services, such as emergency contraception that could prevent pregnancy, or even a referral to another doctor who would care for their needs. They want the ability to refuse to hire someone who wants to marry their same-sex partner, or fire a woman because she wants contraceptives covered by their insurance or uses IVF to have a baby. The bishops claim that their rights are being trampled on, but they are the ones trampling on the rights of the people whom they should be trying to protect.

It is telling that after the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on marriage equality, during this year’s Fortnight, a statement from the Colorado Catholic Conference leaves no room for compromise: “We are concerned that hateful rhetoric and discrimination against those, whose religious and moral beliefs support the true definition of marriage that has existed for millennia, will intensify.” Similarly, the Los Angeles Archbishop said, “so the question we all face is basic and stark:  How do we continue to live as Christians in a society that no longer has any room for Christ or for God?” What emerges is a pattern of language and imagery that recasts those who would use religion to discriminate against others as victims of, rather than agents of, discrimination, and Americans stand to lose our real religious freedom should that sentiment be encoded into law.

Thankfully, Catholics across the United States see through that ruse and reject the USCCB’s warped version of religious liberty. Everyday Catholics believe in real religious freedom for all Americans: freedom of and freedom from religion. We believe that human dignity is not earned by the size of one’s paycheck, where the paycheck comes from, or who one loves, but simply by virtue of being human. We support access to abortion, contraception, and other reproductive health services, and oppose policies that impose belief by religious fiat.

Knowing that the USCCB does not speak for all Catholics, Catholics for Choice took on the Fortnight for Freedom’s false premise with a campaign to promote real religious freedom. We placed a front cover wraparound ad in the Washington Post Express that pointed a finger at the Catholic bishops’ campaign for discrimination. Our messages about real religious liberty reached more than a quarter million people in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area and broader audiences nationwide through social media.

Colleagues in the Coalition for Liberty & Justice—a broad based coalition of faith-based, secular, civil rights, reproductive health, and LGBTQ advocacy organizations that works to ensure that public policy protects the religious liberty of individuals of all faiths and no faith, and to oppose public policies that impose one religious viewpoint on all—joined two Twitterstorms under the hashtag #religiousfreedomis. The first celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges and its meaning for religious liberty for all no matter who they love. The second Twitterstorm highlighted examples of real religious liberty in the areas of separation of religion and state, reproductive rights, and LGBTQ equality. Other CLJ members, like the National Latina Institute for Reproductive HealthMergerWatchPolitical Research Associates and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, joined with the Secular Coalition of America to shed light on the USCCB’s campaign to redefine religious liberty. CLJ partner Rev. Barry Lynn fromAmericans United for Separation of Church and State wrote an op-ed with Jon O’Brien of Catholics for Choice for the Baltimore Sunspeaking to the importance of separation of church and state from both a religious and secular point of view.

It’s important that we all continue to stand up for the real definition of religious liberty. The road to the 2016 elections will showcase more posturing about religious liberty and many more appeals to the fiction of “US Christians being persecuted for championing their faith.” The USCCB continues to lobby, both in Congress and state legislatures across the country, for measures that enable them to continue taking taxpayer money to serve the public, yet discriminate against and marginalize those with whom they disagree. Two of these bills are currently before Congress.

The First Amendment Defense Act (S 1598/HR 2802), sponsored by Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID), would enact a broad religious refusal to allow individuals and institutions to discriminate against same-sex couples and their children. The Health Care Conscience Rights Act (HR 940), sponsored by Rep. Diane Black (R-TN), would amend the Affordable Care Act to allow any individual or institution that sponsors or issues health insurance to refuse coverage for “abortion or any other item or service” based on any “moral or religious objection.” These special exemptions violate, rather than protect, the conscience rights of the employees, patients, and beneficiaries who should be the ones deciding what healthcare they need.

Policy that respects the conscience-based decisions of individuals and protects the real religious liberty of each and every one of us, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, is imperative. The USCCB’s annual Fortnight may be over, but protecting real religious liberty for each and every one of us, no matter what we believe, remains a crucial task.


Catholics for Choice