WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — With every passing U.S. election cycle, First Amendment and religious freedom-minded voters and watchdogs might be tempted to think, “This is the election that will most matter in our lifetimes.”
But as recent years have brought a wave of religious liberty court battles and the federal contraceptive mandate infringing on an array of operations by church entities — along with a U.S. Supreme Court vacancy to be filled — 2016 might be a seminal electoral year.
“I have been doing this 25 years, and I don’t recall the same level of concern,” said Mark Harrington, executive director of the Ohio-based Created Equal, a nonsectarian pro-life organization, who spoke with Catholic News Service about the upcoming religious liberties landscape in light of the presidential campaign.
Harrington pointed out he was part of an audit in 2009 by the Internal Revenue Service following comments he made about one of the presidential candidates. He said he speaks as a private individual when he asserts that he worries about the pace at which federal government has been chipping away at freedom of speech and religious liberties under the current administration.
“Each cycle I keep saying this is the most important election in my lifetime and this one really is, because of the Supreme Court mainly,” Harrington said, referring to the vacancy left this year by the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the leading conservative voice on the court.
“Whatever is decided (this year), those two issues — religious liberty and abortion — hang in the balance, and if the Supreme Court would tilt to the left, we could see an entire generation pass before we get back to a place where the courts protect life and religious liberty,” he said.
“It is clear First Amendment liberties are being threatened.”
Without endorsing candidates or parties, Harrington said he predicts that if elected president, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton would continue with President Barack Obama’s domestic policies of curtailing religious liberties.
Harrington sees some relief in Republican nominee Donald Trump’s recent statements, saying that Trump, if elected, would consider doing away with the so-called Johnson Amendment, which threatens religious institutions with the loss of their tax-exempt status if they openly advocate their political views.
“I don’t know if (Trump) would get it done, but organizations like ours would love to see that happen and to see that stripped. The Johnson Amendment initially was never intended to be used to stymie free speech,” said Harrington, who said his organization prevailed after an IRS investigation but that the process itself was a kind of punishment for perceived partisanship rather than pro-life principles.
Trump also has vowed to appoint judges and justices who will uphold law as it is written in the Constitution and not rewrite law based on a political agenda; he has released a list of 11 potential Supreme Court nominees.
“We can direct people to vote on the issue of abortion, to vote pro-life, and leave it up to the individual to reason which candidate is for or against abortion, to let people know where candidates stand,” Harrington said.
“With Mr. Trump, he has to answer to his Republican caucus, which in the case of the U.S. House, has become more conservative, so I would feel very comfortable with a Trump presidency protecting religious liberty.”
In Chicago, Tom Brejcha, president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Society, which is fighting religious freedom court battles around the country, noted that he “is not a fan” of either the Democratic or Republican candidates and that he expected his organization will be busy no matter who is elected president.
Brejcha does point out that the rhetoric from the Democratic nominee and her running mate, Tim Kaine, strike him as more openly anti-religious and anti-Catholic — a potentially even more vigorous continuation of what many say are Obama’s anti-religion policies.
“We are in a time way beyond perilous, and some of the statements and edicts coming down from on high in Washington reflect that,” he said, pointing to the recent comments by the chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Martin Castro, that the phrases “religious liberty” and “religious freedom” were “code words” used to discriminate.
The tragic irony is that the civil rights movement and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a movement born out of the Christian churches of the South, he said.
“And now you have Tim Kaine’s comments that the church’s position on the definition of marriage is just going to have to change: This is outspoken anti-church banter, anti-Catholic bombast,” he said, adding that his organization is trying to recruit more volunteer lawyers to keep up with challenges from “anti-religious progressive” opponents and activities.
Kaine, a U.S. senator from Virginia, is a Catholic who has been criticized for his support for legal abortion; he personally opposes it but says a woman has a right to choose. He also supports same-sex marriage, which the church opposes. Kaine’s remarks that the Catholic Church might change its position on “marriage equality,” as he put it, were in a talk he gave to gay rights activists Sept. 10.
“All the elections are important, but this one is pivotal to religious liberty in so many ways, which is the first liberty the freedom of belief,” Brejcha said. It’s well past time for Catholics to wake up and see that the government is trying to take over our religion and that is not an understatement in the slightest.”
In addition to ongoing court battles, religious institutions, including the U.S. bishops through their national Fortnight for Freedom campaign, have waged a response to the health care contraception mandate and other legal directives that impact the ability of Catholic entities to serve the poor and vulnerable in accordance with human dignity and the church’s teaching.
The Health and Human Services mandate that most religious employers must provide sterilization, contraception and abortion-inducing drugs as part of their health care plans forces religious institutions to facilitate or fund a product contrary to their own moral teaching. Other mandates or laws impact adoption and foster-care services, immigration services and Catholic humanitarian services.
“It has been taken off the table as a wedge issue, and you don’t see the Republicans running on that,” Created Equal’s Harrington said, adding that “the Christian community is not pressing hard to make it illegal as much as it had in the past after the opposition has died off a bit.”
The federal government also tries to define which religious institutions are “religious enough” to merit protection of their religious liberty, according to a statement of the U.S. bishops, which notes the threat to religious freedom is larger than any single case or issue and has its roots in secularism in our culture.
Although that decision has prompted concern that the federal government will interfere with long-held religious beliefs and marriage traditions among faith communities such as the Catholic Church, it has not been a major point of discussion in the ongoing election campaign.
The U.S. bishops have noted that religious liberty is much more than freedom of worship, asking aloud: Can the church do the good works our faith calls us to do, without having to compromise that very same faith?
“Without religious liberty properly understood, all Americans suffer, deprived of the essential contribution in education, health care, feeding the hungry, civil rights, and social services that religious Americans make every day, both here at home and overseas,” the bishops wrote in a 2012 statement.