Another Supremes Top Ten

11-12-2017Fr. John LettersFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

It’s been a year since Trump trumped. And what a year it has been! The way I see it, it has really been the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Everything is coming to light, and the contrast that has been revealed is very stark. Compromise seems to be off the table. One side wins and one side loses seems to be the wave of the future. But we are trying. By we, I mean the religious community. Our culture has changed drastically and is no longer in sync with the Judeo-Christian values of our past. Because of the efforts of mostly unelected judges, even our laws now often reflect an anti-religious bias. When I was a boy growing up in Quaker Pennsylvania, we had the Blue Laws. All non-essential businesses had to close on Sunday.  It was the Lord’s Day and since the majority of people worshiped on Sunday, not having to be open for business made sense for most employers. That all changed as some people fought hard for the right to work seven days a week without a day off.

The overturning of the Blue Laws is a mild example compared to what has happened since. With the advent of legalized abortion, same-sex marriage, and assisted suicide in many states, religious believers and employers are being asked to compromise their values under the penalty of law. That is quite a change from how things were in the not too distant past when spaces were carved out for the minority position. The question then becomes: how big and expansive is the First Amendment? Is it still possible for religious beliefs to operate freely within the public square without government restriction? Since the morality that is the basis of so many current laws and policies and cultural expectations is often antithetical to the previous Judeo-Christian morality that infused our laws and practices, this is new territory. For instance, should churches have to solemnize same-sex marriages? Should Catholic hospitals be made to perform abortions and assist with requests for suicide? Or should a private business be compelled to engage in business that violates a business owner’s conscience?

The reason I say we are trying to figure out compromises and coexistence is because things have changed so drastically, and we, as religious believers, want to live in peace with those who have a different value system. Suddenly we find ourselves strangers in a strange land. So where should the lines be drawn? Where does freedom of conscience and the free exercise of religion end and discrimination begin?

These are some of the issues the Supreme Court will look at as it hears the case of the cake baker in Colorado who, though he never refused service to gays or anyone else, declined to service a same-sex wedding event.  Much of the media is presenting this as a case of gay rights. It is not. So you will see headlines such as: “Do religious people have the right to discriminate against gays?” But what you won’t see in a headline is: “Do Americans still have the freedom of conscientious objection based on sincerely held moral or religious grounds?” Regardless of how it is framed, this is an extremely important case - one of the most important in our history as it will determine how expansive the Freedom of Religion really is. That does not mean the solution will be perfect, but compromise never is. What I hope for is that when the Supremes sing, it will be consistent with the historical fact that Freedom of Religion is our first freedom and should be restricted only for the most compelling reasons. Is our society big enough and free enough to accommodate a baker who wants to bake a cake for a same-sex marriage and one who objects to doing so, not on discriminatory grounds but on moral grounds?

Since the legalization of same-sex marriage and the strong push to require religious organizations to provide services such as abortion or assisted suicide, we have been trying to figure out where the lines are. No longer is there a willingness to carve out space for conscientious objection. This is a whole new reality. What we are trying to figure out as a society is what does co-existence look like with two opposing value systems? At this point it is not helpful when one side wants to totally crush the other, insisting that compromise is not acceptable but only unconditional surrender is. We saw that for the eight years of the previous administration. Gratefully, the Justice Department recently issued a list of 20 Principles for Religious Liberty to all federal agencies to provide guidance on religious liberty issues and end attempts to inhibit the free exercise requirement of the First Amendment. 

A lot hinges on this Supreme Court case. Will it be a government that espouses benevolent neutrality or malevolent hostility? Either we will find ways to compromise and accommodate one another, continuing our experiment in ordered liberty for all, while living in a pluralistic society with many different and often opposing viewpoints and values, doing so in relative peace, or one side will be given power to dictate what the free exercise of religion will actually look like going forward.

There is a reason Religious Liberty was listed first in the Bill of Rights. Once a government is given power to invade a person’s conscience then all liberty ceases.

Love, Fr. John B.

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