ROME — In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision earlier this month to back a baker who refused to make a cake for a gay wedding, a new wave of charges that claims of religious liberty are an excuse for the right to discriminate has crested.
Yet while this was one of the most closely watched cases before the court this term — with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) supporting the baker — religious liberty advocates say they were also very focused on another high profile case where the USCCB filed an amicus brief against the Trump administration’s travel ban, calling it “blatant religious discrimination” targeted at Muslims. On Tuesday, however, the Court sided with the administration and deemed it lawful — this time delivering a blow to the bishops.
Upon being elected as head of the USCCB’s Committee on Religious Liberty last November, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville Kentucky enlisted Bishop Robert Barron, an auxiliary in Los Angeles, to help revamp the way U.S. Church leaders discuss religious liberty.
In interviews with Crux during the bi-annual meeting of U.S. bishops earlier this month, both Kurtz and Barron outlined the ongoing efforts to change the language used to discuss religious liberty in an effort to rescue it from the culture wars.
In the words of Barron, “we want to talk about religious liberty in a more winsome, positive way.”
According to Kurtz, while there was no real “aha moment,” he says this move comes with the growing realization that individuals around his age — he’s 71 — intuitively “get it and see encroachments on people who seek to live their faith 24/7…but people a little younger don’t get it.”
Reflecting on recent legal battles, Kurtz says he’s all too aware that “we’re a culture that only reads headlines,” and that many Americans take little time to reflect on the nuances of complex cases and only consume news from sources with which they’re comfortable.
Enter Barron, who told Crux it’s the Church’s duty to offer a positive vision of what the Church is proposing rather than just restating what it’s against.
“We have gotten positioned where it looks like we’re the old-fashioned, entrenched culture warriors,” Barron says regretfully, “and that’s counter-productive.”
While he believes there’s a certain animosity that’s been directed at the Church, he also says Church leaders have, at times, been “too defensive about holding off aggressive forces.”
Although it’s not as glamorous or as well-funded as a Madison Avenue style marketing campaign, Barron and Kurtz says that the committee — and then the conference as a whole — is actively discussing ways in which it can employ better messaging.
Take, for example, foster care programs that in some places, most recently in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia with faith-based initiatives, have faced closure for not being willing to place children with gay and lesbian couples.
Kurtz says that in those situations, historically, arguments in defense of the Church have focused on the institution or the organization. Instead, he maintains that a more effective strategy is to start with the human person whom the program intends to serve.
In the case of foster care programs, he says the language and argumentation must ask first and foremost what will happen to the children if they can’t get the services and care they deserve.
“Let’s talk about putting the child first, and then go from there,” said Kurtz.
“We see religious liberty as the freedom to serve, to give people of faith the public space to do what they do, which is to serve the poor, to reach out to the margins, to do all of these works of mercy, and then to be agents in the public space,” Barron told Crux.
Moreover, says Barron, there is a long tradition within the country — secular America at that, he says — which has long been open to religion even if the individual or institution isn’t religious themselves, and he’d like to see that history reclaimed.
“We need to go back, whether it’s de Tocqueville’s thought or Lincoln or Martin Luther King, and realize there are people who are entering the public space with a religious motivation, so that people can say, ‘hey that’s a great thing—not just for us, but for society, and we want the religious liberty to make that contribution.’”
“We’re not an anti-religious society by our nature, we’re a secular society, but not anti-religious, and I think that’s something that’s getting threatened now—the idea that in order to be secular you have to be anti-religious. I’m going to argue ‘no,’ and that’s the space that religious liberty is interested in,” he said.
In looking ahead, both Kurtz and Barron expressed disappointment that religious liberty has now come to be viewed as a largely conservative concern.
“The average person probably does see this as a conservative issue, but it’s not,” Kurtz insisted. “The voice of faith has been challenged across the spectrum of things.”
Going forward, he says, there is a strong need to depolarize concern for religious liberty so that it can be something all Americans, especially Catholics, see as something that they value.
A few years ago, Kurtz recalls, Catholics in Alabama were threatened for serving undocumented individuals at a soup kitchen and the state wanted individuals to “turn in the Church” for its support of immigrants.
“We don’t look at a baptismal certificate, let alone some other legal papers, when we seek to serve people,” says Kurtz. “That’s what religious liberty is.”