Religious liberty takes center stage in national debate as state bills advance

By Maureen Smith/CNS
Bishop Joseph Kopacz issued a statement Tuesday, April 5, regarding the Religious Accommodation law signed by Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant to clarify the church’s position on this issue.
“The Diocese of Jackson supported and would continue to support a religious exemption on behalf of the mission of the Catholic church with regard to education and social services. We would like to continue to provide these services while remaining faithful to the teachings of the Catholic Church. The diocese had no involvement in the other portions of the bill that addressed business and government operations. The church will continue to work to protect its First Amendment right to worship, to educate and to serve in the public domain while respecting the dignity of all citizens,” he wrote.
Bishop Kopacz explains the church’s involvement and stance in greater detail in his column this week, starting on page 3. He is not the only bishop facing this issue. Bishops across the nation are weighing in on their support of religious freedom while balancing an opposition to discrimination.
Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and Savannah Bishop Gregory J. Hartmayer said that like all of the U.S. Catholic bishops, they support the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) but “do not support any implementation of RFRA in a way that will discriminate against any individual.”
“Indeed, the dignity of each individual is the basis for religious liberty,” they said in a statement issued the afternoon of March 29. A day earlier, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal announced he would veto a religious exemptions bill.
Supporters of the measure, HB 757 in Georgia, said it would protect religious freedom of clergy, for example, who oppose same-sex marriage and do not want to perform such weddings. But critics of the bill called it “appalling” and said it would have given faith-based organizations in Georgia the option to deny services and jobs to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
Numerous corporations announced that if the bill became law, they would no longer do business in the state of Georgia.
“We fervently support religious liberty guaranteed by the United States and Georgia constitutions and we respect those who seek to enhance those freedoms through legislation,” Archbishop Gregory and Bishop Hartmeyer said. “Gov. Nathan Deal has announced his intention to veto HB 757 and the debate will, thus, continue.”
They added: “Under these circumstances, the general well-being of the state requires that all respectfully acknowledge the worthy motivations on each side and progress into a future of dialogue which, more than continually revising legislative language, will focus on greater compassion and mercy so that every individual can develop his or her full potential.”
The two prelates said that throughout the legislative debate related to religious liberty, “the Catholic bishops of Georgia have adhered to the principles we asserted in March 2015.”
In that earlier statement, also signed by Atlanta Auxiliary Bishops Luis R. Zarama and David P. Talley, they stated that they support RFRA “as a means for establishing a framework for evaluating freedom of religion claims,” as their fellow Catholic bishops have done in other states where such measures have been debated.
“However, the bishops oppose any support or implementation of RFRA in a way that will discriminate against any individual,” the 2015 statement said.
In Virginia, Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe March 30 vetoed a similar measure backed by a majority of Republican lawmakers. Supporters of the bill said it would have prohibited state agencies from punishing religious groups that oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage. But gay rights advocates and Democratic lawmakers said it would have allowed discrimination against members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
“It’s unconstitutional. It is discriminatory,” McAuliffe said on a local radio program. ”It demonizes. It brings fear and persecution. We can’t tolerate that.”
The same day the Virginia Catholic Conference in a statement said it was “deeply dismayed” by the McAuliffe’s veto, because the measure “merely sought to preserve fair access to state resources for clergy and religious organizations – including charities serving the poor and vulnerable throughout the state and schools educating tens of thousands of Virginia children — that act according to their belief that marriage is between a man and a woman.
“Yet,” it continued, “the governor concludes the very opposite by claiming in a statement that the bill ”would shield from civil liability those who actively discriminate against same-sex couples.”
Marriage is the first institution, written in natural law and existing before any government or religion, and is between one man and one woman, the conference said. “Recognizing and honoring this institution is not discrimination, but counting people’s faith against them most certainly is.”
On April 5, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed a bill passed by the Senate March 30 known as the Religious Accommodations Act. It says the government cannot prevent churches from refusing to marry a same-sex couple, faith-based employers from firing an individual whose “conduct or religious beliefs are inconsistent with those of the religious organization,” or a private agency from blocking the adoption of a child because of religious beliefs.
“Mississippians from all walks of life believe that the government shouldn’t punish someone because of their views on marriage,” said Kellie Fiedorek, who is legal counsel at the Alliance Defending Freedom.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory is being sued after he signed a bill into law March 23 to block local jurisdictions from extending their own protections for the LGBT community, such as allowing transgender people to use the public bathroom of their choice.