Is religious freedom disappearing?

If you have been following the recent political debates and the rulings being made by our courts, you will see that we seem to be at a turning point when it comes to the place of believers in our society. Increasingly, religious belief is being treated as equal to beliefs that do not rely upon reason but only one’s will.

As your shepherd, I urge you to ask the question: “How will I respond if I am forced to choose between my conscience and my livelihood?” And if we are penalized for living according to our faith, it’s prudent for us to ask how we will prepare for this new environment.

I have been giving the topic of religious freedom more thought lately because I recently joined nine of my fellow faith leaders in signing the Williamsburg Charter at the Western Conservative Summit.

“Religious liberty,” the Second Principle of the charter states, “is founded on the inviolable dignity of the person. It is not based on science or social usefulness and is not dependent on the shifting moods of majorities and governments.” In other words, religious freedom comes from our nature, from how we are created.

We only need look to the horrors of the Holocaust, to the millions of believers killed in Stalinist Russia, or the suppression of religious believers in modern day China, India or North Korea to see what happens when religious freedom is denied. Invariably, when a country’s political system does not allow its citizens to choose what they believe, it demands that they give the state the devotion and obedience that is due to God.

In the United States, this is unfolding a bit differently. As lawmakers accept and enshrine protections in our laws for sexual morals that conflict with the beliefs of many people of faith, they are favoring one set of beliefs over another. This is occurring despite the First Amendment stating that the government shall not make any law that establishes a religion, which in this case takes the form of a pseudo-religious ideology. The fervor with which advocates of same-sex relationships, transgenderism and legal abortion push for their vision of sexuality without regard for what scientific data says or doesn’t say demonstrates that their worldview is based on a belief, not facts.

St. John Paul II described the relationship between authentic faith and reason in his encyclical Fides et Ratio. He wrote, “There is thus no reason for competition of any kind between reason and faith: each contains the other, and each has its own scope for action” (#17).

What we are confronting today is faith without reason.

The outcry over believers like Jack Phillips refusing to use their skills to endorse a vision of sexuality that they don’t believe is evidence that reason is being abandoned. If this was a disagreement over facts, it would be much calmer. But it is an argument over beliefs. For further evidence, we can look at the spread of sex education curricula or media efforts that promote one’s gender as something that can be chosen. There is no scientific data that indicates gender can change without outside manipulation. It’s a belief – one that has immense spiritual and societal impacts – that’s being marketed as somehow healthier and more free.

Unlike the advocates of modern sexual morality who expect everyone adopt their values, the Christian faith teaches us to respect the free will of others and acknowledges that every person’s life impacts the common good. As Principle Six of the Williamsburg Charter says, “The Free Exercise clause guarantees the right to reach, hold, exercise or change beliefs freely. It allows all citizens who so desire to shape their lives, whether private or public, on the basis of personal and communal beliefs.”

Religious freedom has served as a bedrock principle of the United States, but unless we work to defend our place in the public square, form people in both faith and reason, support faithful family life, and encourage creative, charitable evangelization, it will continue to be in peril.
May God give us the wisdom, strength and joy we need to serve as his witnesses to the beauty of faith united with reason.

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

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“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.”