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Religious Liberty Threats

Two Recent Incidents Raise Serious Concern and Show the Road Ahead May be Rocky

By Msgr. Charles Pope

Two stories recently in the news illustrate that the path for religious liberty is going to get increasingly rocky in the days ahead. Up until now, the main dispute of the Church with the federal government has been over the “HHS Mandate” requiring us to provide contraception and abortion coverage. We have seen some legal victories on this front, but the battle is far from over and the cost in terms of money, time, and other resources has been enormous.

The two new cases involve same-sex attraction. One case centers on certain rights being afforded to “gay” (LGBTQ) citizens and religious objections to this. The second case involves requiring certified Christian ministers to perform same-sex unions.
With these sorts of cases, there are always going to be those who want to argue the subtleties of the particular case and thereby suggest we ought not get too worked up about things because there are just small technical issues at stake. But beware the incremental quality of these sorts of things. Abortion was originally championed only in those rare cases in which the “life or health of the mother was at stake.” The open sale of contraceptives was originally only to be to married couples and surely minors would be prevented from purchasing them. Now things have gone so far that children are not only supplied with contraceptives, but are referred for abortion without parental consent or even in spite of parental objections.

Yes, things begin in small, “restricted,” and subtle ways. Gradually we are desensitized and barely notice that our liberties are being stripped from us. Many think that it will never happen in America, that a minister speaking to his congregation about moral issues would face penalties for it. This is America, after all, and we have constitutional rights to speech and religious liberty!

Well, stay sober, my friend. Liberties of any sort are seldom taken away instantly. Rather, the thing to be more concerned about is their steady erosion.

Let’s look at these two cases. The first is from Houston and the excerpts that follow are from an article in Time magazine. The full article is here: Houston Pastors’ Sermons Subpoenaed

Houston, … in recent days … subpoenaed sermons of several pastors who oppose a recently passed equal rights ordinance for gay and transgender residents. The subpoenas are an attempt by city officials to determine how the preachers instructed their congregants in their push to get the law repealed …

The law, passed into law by Mayor Annise Parker in May, is often derided as a “bathroom bill,” because it allows transgender individuals to choose whether to use a male or female restroom.

… Mayor Parker, meanwhile, has pledged not to enforce the ordinance until there’s a court decision. But the move by the city to subpoena Houston’s pastors, who have been vocal on the issue and have urged their congregants to support a repeal referendum, has drawn national attention …

“The chilling effect of government scrutiny of our pastors is unconstitutional, and unconscionable,” Tony Perkins [of the Family Research Council] said in a statement. “Mayor Parker’s use of her bully pulpit to silence pulpit freedom must be stopped in its tracks.”?Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott also issued a letter saying the city impinged on the pastors’ First Amendment rights and called for the subpoenas’ immediate reversal … “The people of Houston and their religious leaders must be absolutely secure in their knowledge that their religious affairs are beyond the reach of the government.”

… Mayor Parker and City Attorney David Feldman appeared to backtrack on the subpoenas Wednesday, saying they had only recently learned of them and that outside lawyers handled the lawsuit. They argued the city is merely looking for communications from those pastors regarding the petition drive, but that the subpoenas’ language was inappropriate.

“There’s no question the wording was overly broad,” Parker said in a news conference Wednesday. “But I also think there was some deliberate misinterpretation.”

Feldman, the city attorney, called the uproar over the wording “ridiculous,” but also has argued that if a pastor is speaking about political issues from the pulpit, it’s not protected.

Note especially the final line of the quote, wherein our concerns are called “ridiculous,” but even more important, note that the city attorney refers to concerns over the public advancement and legal protection of the LBGTQ agenda as “political.”

Never mind that for some 5,000 years the Judeo-Christian moral tradition has spoken of homosexual acts (as well as heterosexual acts of fornication and adultery) as sinful. That’s right, never mind all that. The city attorney gets to tell us that the concerns that these pastors are raising are simply “political.” Note that it is he who gets to determine that, and that it is the government that will back up his assessment with penalties simply because it is speech that he or other officials determine is “political.”

Many speak in the same way about abortion. Many a Catholic priest who has spoken about abortion from the pulpit has been scolded for “talking about politics” in church. But of course abortion is, first and foremost, a moral issue. Sadly, it is been usurped into the political process, where different parties largely take opposing sides.

To some degree the same thing is happening regarding homosexual acts and whether they should be affirmed or provided special legal protection. But just because this moral issue has been drawn into the political process does not mean that it is no longer a moral issue.

The government does not have an unrestricted right to tell ministers what is a political and what is a moral issue. It will be granted that outright partisan politics from the pulpit is a bridge too far. In churches that have tax-exempt status, the ministers ought not say, “Vote for candidate ‘X’ or “Vote straight party line ticket ‘B’.” But on an issue by issue basis, churches and ministers can and must speak to the moral issues of the day.

Things like theft, murder, lying, illicit sexual activity, greed, and so forth remain moral issues no matter how these things play out in the political process. A government attorney does not get the right to tell a minister that moral issues, constantly held by the Judeo-Christian tradition extending back 5,000 years into record human history, are now simply “political” issues. Any person of good will ought to see that this is chilling.

Not only are the government officials saying this, but they are threatening with penalties those whom they say transgress. The word subpoena, as you probably know, means (literally from the Latin) “to be under penalty.” In other words, if compliance is not forthcoming, penalties will follow. SO this is not just a debate over semantics of what is political and what is moral. This is a matter that, had the law gone forth, was going to carry the force of law and involve penalties.

Yes, stay sober, my friends. Although the government officials in Houston walked this back a bit, calling it just a big “misunderstanding,” this is just the first shot across the bow.

The Second Story is even more sobering:

City officials told Donald Knapp that he and his wife Evelyn, both ordained ministers who run Hitching Post Wedding Chapel, are required to perform [same-sex] ceremonies or face months in jail and/or thousands of dollars in fines. The city claims its “non-discrimination” ordinance requires the Knapps to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies now that the courts have overridden Idaho’s voter-approved constitutional amendment that affirmed marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

[A Lawyer for the minsters said] “Many have denied that pastors would ever be forced to perform ceremonies that are completely at odds with their faith, but that’s what is happening here – and it’s happened this quickly. The city is on seriously flawed legal ground, and our lawsuit intends to ensure that this couple’s freedom to adhere to their own faith as pastors is protected just as the First Amendment intended.”

“The government exists to protect and respect our freedoms, not attack them, The city cannot erase these fundamental freedoms and replace them with government coercion and intolerance.”

The Hitching Post Wedding Chapel is across the street from the Kootenai County Clerk’s office, which issues marriage licenses. The Knapps, both in their 60s and who themselves have been married for 47 years, began operating the wedding chapel in 1989 as a ministry. They perform religious wedding ceremonies, which include references to God, the invocation of God’s blessing on the union, brief remarks drawn from the Bible designed to encourage the couple and help them to have a successful marriage, and more. They also provide each couple they marry with a CD that includes two sermons about marriage, and they recommend numerous Christian books on the subject. The Knapps charge a small fee for their services.

[Last] Friday, the Knapps respectfully declined such a ceremony and now face up to 180 days in jail and up to $1,000 in fines for each day they decline to perform that ceremony. (These are excerpts, full story here: Government Threatens Ministers for Not Performing Same-Sex Weddings)

Let me say from the outset that I am not a big fan of this sort of “wedding chapel” ministry. Couples need to spend time to prepare and not rush out from getting a license and go across the street to a “hitching post.” However, the couple has been doing this for over forty years and are “ordained” ministers who do focus their effort in religious themes and settings.

Whatever my personal reserve about their catering to impulsive couples, it is surely though not the place of the government to compel them to perform their religious ceremonies for people whose clear behavior violates the ministers deep-seated religious beliefs.

Yet it would seem that this is exactly what is happening if the facts are reported correctly here. Caterers, photographers, and others are facing the same penalties nationwide.

Now this leads to a very critical point in the religious liberty issue: it is not the Church alone that has religious liberty, but YOU, the American citizens have religious liberty. The State should not be able to compel you to violate deeply held religious beliefs.

It will be granted that a compelling concern could permit the State to overrule a religious practice. For example if a religious group called for child sacrifice, that would create a compelling State interest in preventing the exercise of such a grave violation of natural and civil law. But the ability of a same-sex couple to be able to do as they please in terms of a “wedding” venue is not a compelling State interest.

Further, the religious concern in play here is not some obscure doctrine but one that has been operative for millennia, and only recently abandoned by some.

Yes, be sober, my friends, the steady erosion of religious liberty continues apace in this country. Political correctness, cultural change, intolerance, and expansive government power are becoming the “perfect storm” that is eroding the religious liberty of many. The storm may still seem offshore to many, but its outer bands are already spreading a dark mantle over the land.

This article has been reprinted here by permission of the author after original publication, published by the Diocese of Washington

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