Punishing the poor and needy

Archbishop Aquila

Every afternoon in downtown Denver, homeless men, women and children are given shelter, food and a place to wash themselves. Not far away, hundreds of people are receiving high quality medical care at one of our Catholic hospitals or Marisol Health. Some local parishes also distribute food, clothing, or help with rent. Whether you are on the Eastern Plains, the Western Slope or along the Front Range, people of faith are contributing their skills and resources to your community and making it a better place to live, and especially for the less fortunate.

Since we celebrated our nation’s independence about a week ago, the ability of people of faith to make a positive contribution to our society has been on my mind. People of faith make our society a better place as they seek the good and the true, and the right to live our faith in the public square is guaranteed by the Constitution. Unfortunately, there are forces at work trying to change that, and if they succeed it will be the vulnerable who are hurt the most.

Many people are familiar with Jack Phillips’ case because he recently received a favorable verdict from the U.S. Supreme Court. In brief, Jack was sued by a gay couple for refusing to make them a wedding cake, since doing so would contradict his belief that God created marriage to be between a man and a woman. His case – and others around the country – clearly show that there are people who want to silence Christian people and use the force of law to make them act against their faith or be punished.

Tim Gill, the multimillionaire who is funding and directing many of these efforts, plainly stated his intentions in a June 2017 Rolling Stone interview. “We’re going into the hardest states in the country,” he said. “We’re going to punish the wicked.” According to Gill, people of faith are “wicked” when their views do not agree with his. In this worldview, there is no room for differences on matters of prudence or conscience.

What you won’t hear from activists like Tim Gill is that the people who will suffer the most from his campaign against faith and the freedom of conscience are the homeless, children waiting to be adopted, or those needing hospital care. In short, the people who will be hurt are those who rely on the charitable activity of people of faith.

Take, for example, the Catholic Charities adoption programs in Boston, Illinois, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. that have been forced to shut down because they believe it’s not in children’s best interest to be placed with a same-sex couple. In Illinois, Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Springfield estimates that about 3,000 children were impacted by their closure. As was predicted, the state is now experiencing a shortage of quality foster families. Surely, this does not benefit society.

It is unexpected, but homeless men and women are also being impacted by changes to regulations. In Sept. 2016 the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development finalized rules that require homeless shelters to accommodate transgender people by placing them according to whatever gender they present themselves as, rather than their biological sex. Most often, it is men identifying themselves as women who approach the shelters, and this frightens the women, especially since many of them have been victimized by men on the streets.

Religious freedom can seem like an abstract concept, but when you look at the fruits of this basic liberty, its importance becomes clear. Moved by their faith, Catholics and others in the Archdiocese of Denver spent 2017 providing over 212,000 nights of shelter, emergency assistance to 28,000 households, 714 job placements, and almost 73,000 volunteer hours through Catholic Charities.

Further, hundreds of immigrants are assisted with English as a Second Language classes, business training, and faith formation through Centro San Juan Diego. In the name of Jesus, tens of thousands of sick people receive medical care at Catholic hospitals, clinics and nursing homes. This list doesn’t include other Christian, Jewish, or Muslim charitable endeavors, nor does it include individuals whose faith guides the way they run their small business or their work for their employer.

It is a convenient and worn-out argument to accuse people of discrimination to pressure them into giving up their beliefs, but this tactic ignores the people who suffer the most from the intolerance of those insisting people of faith give up their beliefs. Our country has long recognized and benefited from the gifts of faithful people, and restricting this spirit of generosity will make our society poorer.

I am grateful that the Supreme Court recognized that Jack Phillips’ right to religious freedom was infringed, but his case will certainly not be the last. As Christians, we must respond to this pressure with the joy that is born from faith, with loving, persistent resistance and forgiveness. Let us respond to Pope Francis’ appeal that he made as he spoke in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. “Let us preserve freedom. Let us cherish freedom. Freedom of conscience, religious freedom, the freedom of each person, each family, each people, which is what gives rise to rights.”

COMING UP: Bakery ruling: A win for discrimination or religious liberty?

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

“I serve everybody, regardless of their sexual orientation or race.”

Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips spoke these words to the Denver Catholic after the Supreme Court ruled in his favor June 4 regarding his choice not to write a message about same-sex marriage on a wedding cake because it contradicted his beliefs.

He added, “That day, I told the two gentlemen I would sell them anything in my shop. That was a message that I couldn’t create.”

Amid the great amount of criticism Phillips has received since the court’s ruling, an abounding number of critics have considered him a bigot and compared him to a racist or slave holder.

Yet, Jeremy Tedesco, the baker’s attorney, said that the Supreme Court emphasized that Jack’s case is entirely different from that of discrimination or racism.

“It’s important for people to understand that we faced this argument all the time, in the Supreme Court and in the lower courts,” Tedesco said. “And for the Supreme Court to rule for Jack, despite the fact that the other side was making that comparison [to racism and discrimination] all the time, sends an important message.

“[The Supreme Court] said that tying Jack to racists and slavery is offensive – it’s disparaging of his religious beliefs.”

Court’s decision ‘a benefit for everyone’

The hostility against Phillips’ faith that was present in Colorado’s lower courts led the Supreme Court to rule in his favor, Tedesco said. The decision is meant to protect not just religious believers, but all citizens, from a government that attempts to decide what groups can and cannot exercise their rights, he said.

A great problem for Colorado is that the state’s Civil Rights Division is “playing favorites” when it comes to the one’s right to decline to create something that goes against one’s beliefs, Tedesco stated.

“The government shouldn’t force artists to create art that is inconsistent with their beliefs. The government has no business dictating the content of an artist’s expression,” he added. “That is a freedom that benefits everybody, not just the people who are religious.”

A 2015 precedent influenced the Supreme Court’s decision for Phillips. In a previous case, the Colorado Civil Rights Division ruled in favor of a Denver bakery saying it was not discriminating when refusing to make a cake with an anti-gay message because it had the right to.

“The Supreme Court determined that the unequal treatment was part of the reason why [the previous decision against Jack] violated his free exercise rights. That discriminatory enforcement of the law showed the religious targeting against Jack and the hostility of Colorado,” the attorney pointed out.

In other words, Phillips was expected to accept others’ non-Christian beliefs, but he could not expect others to accept his.

The government shouldn’t force artists to create art that is inconsistent with their beliefs. The government has no business dictating the content of an artist’s expression. That is a freedom that benefits everybody, not just the people who are religious.”

“The court reaffirmed that religious hostility towards people of faith has no place in our society… [and] that people like Jack have honorable beliefs – like the belief that marriage is a union between a man and a woman – that deserve tolerance and respect in our society,” he continued.

Is it still discrimination?

The Supreme Court’s decision to treat this case differently from that of discrimination has not stopped the allusions to the argument, especially from much of the media and LGBTQ groups.

In response, Father Angel Perez, Assistant Professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, told the Denver Catholic that a key distinction should be made when analyzing these two cases – mainly the difference between avoiding collaborating in something that is morally wrong versus actually doing something that is morally wrong.

 

“Someone who refuses to make a cake for a same-sex wedding is only trying not to collaborate with an act that he or she believes is morally wrong,” he explained. “But refusing to provide a service to someone [because of their skin color] is not about collaborating in something morally wrong, it’s actually doing something that is morally wrong. Doing so would be saying that the other person is not of the same dignity as others.”

 

This means that choosing not to cooperate in an act one believes is morally wrong does not violate the dignity of the other person, but only disagrees with the act the other person is doing.

“Under this light, the baker’s case is a true case of religious liberty because there is a foundation of truth to that which he believes,” he said. “He has a reasonable explanation for why he believes that act is not morally good. In the case of discrimination, however, a foundation of truth is missing, which means that it’s a direct attack on the equal dignity of all citizens.”

The Church and LGBTQ issues

Father Perez says that just because the Church has reasons to hold that homosexual acts do not reflect the dignity of the human person or the truth of human sexuality, it does not mean that the Church hates or does not accept people who believe or act on these inclinations.

Denver, CO, June 8, 2018: A cake displayed at Masterpiece Cakeshop. (Photo by Aaron Lambert)

“We must remember something very important – that the Church loves homosexuals, she loves people with sexual-identity crises. She loves all sinners like a mother,” he said. “A mother wants the good for her children and because she loves them, she corrects and guides them. The Church loves us, and precisely because she loves us, she shows us the truth – what she knows is best for us.

“That doesn’t mean that she’s exclusive. The doors are open to everyone. In fact, everyone in the Church – including myself – are sinners.”

Yet, love and mercy require truth, he said: “Mercy is only a false compassion if it contains no truth. True mercy brings us out of our misery. Mercy needs the truth to pull us out of our misery, of our sin, and call us to conversion, as Jesus Christ did.”