BALTIMORE — As the United States Supreme Court prepares to hear one of the most highly anticipated cases this term — over whether a baker can refuse to bake a cake for a gay marriage — Archbishop William Lori, former head of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, believes the case will have grave implications for the future of religious freedom.

In an interview with Crux during the U.S. bishops’ annual fall assembly in Baltimore earlier this month, Lori said that while many Americans still place a high priority on religious freedom, he believes that shifting cultural tides pose a real threat to public expression of the Catholic faith.

“In the United States, there have obviously been a series of challenges to religious liberty, whether it was the Health and Human Services (HHS) contraceptive mandate, whether it was the contract difficulties we had with Migration and Refugee Services trying to do its work, there’s been a whole series of challenges,” said Lori.

“I think those legal and judicial and policy challenges perhaps are indicators about a shift in thinking on religious liberty in the wider culture. While many people still value this as a fundamental freedom and very important part of human dignity, there are currents of thought in society where that’s not so,” Lori warned.

The Obama administration’s final rule on the HHS mandate requiring some religious institutions to pay for contraception proved to be a flashpoint for religious liberty debates and since that time has become a defining issue for the U.S. bishops.

Following the election of President Donald Trump, the U.S. bishops were promised relief from the mandate, which was delivered in the form of a new rule last month. Despite complaints from the bishops and other litigants that the process took too long, Lori says he is pleased with the current version of the mandate, but warns that there are related challenges still to come.

“We’ve been working on this for six years so that’s a long time,” said Lori. “The new interim final rule is very good. It covers the breadth of the challenge, at the same time we have to also recognize that the new rule is being challenged in court, so one must also ask how long we’ll have this protection.”

In the meantime, the U.S. bishops have their eye on another case that they believe will be determinative of where the country is headed on this issue.

When the U.S. Supreme Court hears the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission next week, one side will argue that being mandated to bake a case for a gay wedding is forced participation in an event (in this case, a wedding), and therefore a violation of freedom of expression, whereas the other side believes that allowing such refusals would give license to discrimination, not just for businesses, but also range of other activities.

Reflecting on the case, Lori told Crux that what’s at stake is a matter of conscientious objection.

“We have to ask ourselves as a culture, ‘do we have the freedom still to respectfully disagree with laws or cultural currents that are being broadly accepted, but do you have the right to conscientiously object?’ I would think we do,” he said.

“If you can conscientiously object to war, you should be able to conscientiously object to abortion or the redefinition of marriage,” Lori continued. “That does not mean you disrespect the people that are involved and that does not mean you are hateful to people. It means you are respectfully disagreeing and declining to participate.”

While the Masterpiece Cakeshop case will put the tensions between the Church and LGBT individuals front and center, Lori says it’s critical for intellectual and religious disagreements not to overshadow personal relationships.

“I’ve been a priest for 40 years and in many kinds of pastoral situations. It’s always been my experience that when you come to know people and care about them as people and you’re willing to listen to their story, there develops a mutual respect,” said Lori. “With that mutual respect, you recognize there’s a difference in opinion, different points of view, nonetheless, there is the ability to converse, to talk about things, to pray about things, and at the end of the day, to accept the Church’s teaching for all of us, requires a conversion of mind and heart and soul.

“Those involved in gay marriage are by no means outliers. We are all there on various teachings of the Church. It’s possible for someone to accept all the Church’s teachings intellectually, but to be far short of living those teachings,” Lori observed.

“Or there may be other people who tend to be rather orthodox, but there might be one or another teaching that they have a difficult time accepting and living, even intellectually. So to me, it’s not a case of compromising the doctrine…I think it’s a matter of relationships that create the possibility for a dialogue. And at the end of the day, what the pastoral interaction does it to prepare the ground for a conversion of mind and heart and after 40 years, I know sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. But that should not end the relationship.”

Rather than creating more division, Lori says that he hopes this case will help the country realize what’s at stake, not merely for religious freedom, but for other freedoms, and that this is something that all people of goodwill should value.

“If you look at cultures and societies that don’t have religious freedom, they’re not just and good places, they’re very brutal, difficult places. Religious freedom is good news for those really basic structures in society like families, schools, and community-based organizations,” said Lori.

“There are challenges that are legal and legislative, but the broader challenge we have is to proclaim to our culture the gift of religious freedom as good news. It’s part of the good news about human dignity, and it’s essential to the common good,” Lori concluded.