Catholic Spirit: Religious liberty: What are the threats, and what can Catholics do?

(by Jessica Trygstad)
July 1, 2015

In a country founded on Christian principles, more and more, secular culture is paving the way for a “de-Christianized” nation where religious liberty means people can practice their faith as long as it’s done behind closed doors.

Those are the sentiments of Father Theodore Campbell, former pastor of Good Shepherd Church in Golden Valley, and Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the public policy voice of the state’s bishops.

In the midst of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ fourth annual Fortnight for Freedom — celebrated June 21 to July 4 — Father Campbell and Adkins point to what’s leading to what they say is an erosion of religious liberty. It ranges from the subtle — youth sports tournaments scheduled on Sunday mornings — to the overt — business owners forced to pay for and subsidize goods and services that they don’t support from a moral or religious standpoint.

What’s at stake

Adkins explained that there are three main types of threats to religious liberty in the U.S.: freedom of worship and belief; the ability of the laity to live their faith publicly in their daily lives, including operating their businesses in accordance with their principles; and freedom of the Church as an institution to live its mission in the world, including its affiliated ministries.

Generally, people aren’t facing pressures in a legal or formal sense that would prohibit them from worshiping freely, although they might be stigmatized socially, Adkins said. But, “we’re seeing more laws that infringe on the ability of people to perform the works of mercy.” For example, municipal laws such as zoning ordinances are impacting churches trying to serve the poor and shelter undocumented immigrants.

“That’s fundamentally why we embrace religious liberty — the freedom to serve,” Adkins said. “It’s not simply believing what we want, but the ability to go forth, as Pope Francis has called us to do, out into the public and serve others. We’re not just to keep our faith inside the four walls of our church; we’re meant to go out. And if we can’t do that, it makes it difficult for the faith to survive and to evangelize.”

“The government is saying we can’t be the Church,” Father Campbell said.

Adkins said the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 26 decision legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states “will have a significant ripple effect on the First Amendment right to religious liberty,” adding that it set the Church’s teaching about marriage in opposition to federal law.

“We have already seen conflicts between conscience and same-sex marriage at the state level because Minnesota has already redefined marriage,” Adkins said. “As Chief Justice [John] Roberts noted in his dissent, the creation of a new federal constitutional right of same-sex couples to have their relationship declared a marriage by a state will likely create new layers of conflict.”

Adkins explained that one consequence of the new law could be the federal government revoking the tax-exempt status of churches and ministries that oppose same-sex marriage.

On the other hand, Adkins said that seemingly small impingements may grow into bigger issues.

“Although these threats might not seem significant now . . . as long as we keep letting that freedom of religion be eroded, the threats are going to get worse, and our free exercise will continue to diminish.”

In Father Campbell’s nearly 32 years as pastor of Good Shepherd (he retired July 1), he has seen instances of religious liberty diminish. At the start of his career, a public junior high school invited him and a variety of other religious leaders to speak about their faiths as part of a social studies class. But over time, school administrators feared that the learning experience wasn’t recognizing the separation of church and state, and discontinued the annual event.

“According to our Constitution and our Declaration, there’s a fundamental law before there’s a constitution,” said Father Campbell, who has served on the Archdiocesan Committee of Ecumenical Affairs and as the local point person for the Catholic-Orthodox Conversation. “God has created us, and he’s given laws about it, and they are to norm all of our activities, including our civil government.”

While America’s founders said religious liberty is important, too many influential forces no longer consider it beneficial for the common good, and so it can be stepped on, Father Campbell explained.

“When we had a religious culture, politics were dirty,” he said, “but nobody would dare say that God didn’t exist. Or they would not have suppressed the Declaration of Independence or the Pledge of Allegiance.”

What to do

Adkins said that if Catholics want to preserve religious liberty, they have to do two things: No. 1, live the joy of the Gospel, showing that religious liberty is worth protecting, and, No. 2, demonstrate that religious liberty is important and valuable to society because it contributes to the common good.

“At the end of the day, the best thing the Church has to offer is the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty,” Adkins said. “We have to live the joy of the Gospel in its fullest and help people understand that our exercise of religion is not simply because we want to impose arbitrary limitations on people, but we want to help people live within God’s design, and we want to serve other people.

“We have to make rational arguments for why we believe what we do,” Adkins continued. “We need to continue to engage at the level of public policy and intellectual and academic sphere and continue to propose why our beliefs and values contribute to human flourishing. . . . When we suppress religion, we harm everybody. And that has to be not just spoken, but it has to be lived.”

Adkins and Father Campbell said religious liberty is not just for Christians and Catholics — it’s for anyone of faith. In the last legislative session, the Minnesota Catholic Conference supported a bill to provide religious accommodations for people — in particular, Native Americans —opposed to autopsy procedures. The bill passed.

“We need to stand together and recognize that because religious freedom is important, it’s important for everyone,” Adkins said.

Jessica is the assistant editor of The Catholic Spirit. You can e-mail her at