ORLANDO, Florida – Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, who heads the U.S. bishops’ formerly ad-hoc and now permanent Committee on Religious Liberty, said July 2 that while the recent “Trinity Lutheran” decision of the Supreme Court is great, the real endgame is to see “Blaine Amendments” barring aid to religious schools removed from state constitutions all across America.
“I think we should want them to fall,” Lori said. “They were really born out of an anti-Catholic prejudice, and they don’t treat our children as equals.”
Richard Blaine was a Republican Congressman from Maine and Speaker of the House, who in 1875 proposed amending the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to bar all forms of public aid to religious schools – which, in practice at the time, meant Catholic schools. (Blaine at one point edited a newspaper sponsored by the Know-Nothing party, notorious for its antagonism toward Catholics, and had a pattern of opposing Irish-American and therefore Catholic political candidates.)
The amendment failed, but eventually 37 of the 50 states in America adopted some form of it in their own constitutions. They’re still on the books today, and often complicate efforts to provide public support for faith-based education. In its recent Trinity Lutheran v. Comer decision, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that Missouri’s version of the Blaine Amendment violated the U.S. Constitution when it was used to deny a grant to a church-based school to resurface a playground.
“What ‘Trinity Lutheran’ did was to challenge the Blaine amendment to the Missouri constitution, and they prevailed,” Lori said. “The ruling was not broad enough to strike down all Blaine amendments, and Chief Justice John Roberts put in a footnote to guarantee that we all understood this. However, it kind of put a dent in the Blaine amendments all around the county.
“It gives a key to other courts and legislations that maybe this is not the way to the future,” Lori said, “and that’s a great victory.”
Lori spoke to Crux during the July 1-4 “Convocation of Catholic Leaders,” a gathering of almost 3,500 bishops, clergy, religious and laity in Orlando, Florida, hosted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. It drew five of the six residential cardinals in America, and delegations representing more than 80 percent of the dioceses in the country and all 50 states.
On other fronts, Lori said:
- He got a “great vibe” from the convocation, saying it corresponded to a felt need to pull together “in such a divided, polarized time.”
- He’s “guardedly optimistic” about President Donald Trump’s vow to end the contraception mandates imposed as part of health care reform under the Obama administration, but he worries the fix is coming via an executive order that could be easily reversed. “Inevitably there’s going to be, sometime in the future, God knows when, a change of administrations. People will come in with other philosophies, and it’s going to bounce back and forth. What we really need is some sort of stability, legislative protection, and a court decision is going to help us.”
- Lori argued that some share of the federal budget for relief for genocide victims in Iraq and Syria should be entrusted to the local church in those countries to ensure it reaches Christians, who generally avoid large UN refugee camps. “There should be no objection to doing this, because USAID works with groups such as Catholic Relief Services, other government agencies work with the Catholic Charities USA to deliver goods and services,” he said. “We’re not talking about delivering anything that is sectarian. This is all about life, health, safety and most importantly, it’s about survival.”
Lori also said that while threats to religious freedom are much more lethal in other parts of the world, there nevertheless are worrying trends in the United States. “Who would have ever thought there would be an abortion mandate in our country? Who would have ever thought that if you were a Catholic doctor in our country, and you wanted to practice medicine according to your beliefs and teachings, you would have such a hard time from the American Medical Association? Who would have thought you could be disbarred for advocating traditional marriage? … What we are seeing is a tendency to silence people of faith.”
The following are excerpts from Lori’s conversation with Crux.
Crux: What kind of vibe are you picking up at the convocation?
Lori: I’m picking up a great vibe, and it’s a vibe of engagement. What I’m seeing is people who have hungered to come together like this. Maybe that’s because we’re living in such a divided, polarized time, maybe because those polarities get reflected in our experiences as Church, and maybe because this is a moment when as Catholics we just feel the need to be together. Also, it’s coming together with an invitation to share, to engage. It’s a place where your experience counts. And I think this is something that we are really happy we are doing.
John Paul II had this intuition that young Catholics needed to come together to support one another, and realize that they weren’t alone. At the beginning, many thought it wasn’t going to work. Looking back at the development of World Youth Day, we can say he was right on the money. Similarly, you bishops had the intuition a decade ago that people needed to come together. At the time, the perception was that too often we work in silos, bringing polarization into the Church, and we need to discover our underlying unity. How do you think an event like this accomplishes that?
First of all, I think it does so simply by the experience of praying together. There’s nothing like prayer in common to overcome polarities. Prayer is where we discover our common father, and our adopted sonship and daughter-ship in the Holy Spirit. It’s in that moment of prayer that we discover we’re members of the same family.
Secondly, we are here under different circumstances. Its’ one thing to go to the bishops’ conference in November in Baltimore, and you have x, y and z on the agenda, and you have to get this panel organized. Here it’s different. We’ve gathered together to talk about what is most important in our life.
There really is no business agenda at this gathering …
No, the business agenda is this: The stars all came out, we have these great speakers, but they’re not lecturing us, they are seeding conversations. We’re trying to capture that, so our diocesan delegations are engaging.
Thinking about Baltimore, we have 20 people here, representing a diversity of parishes, representing diocesan planning and our evangelization department. I said, ‘Come in, you have a lot to share, but you also want to be like a sponge, you want to soak this up.’ I believe they really will bring a lot back to our dioceses. Especially for our own efforts to be missionary disciples, to do parish planning in a way that is more than organizational and really vitalizes the mission.
By coincidence, the convocation takes place at the end of the Fortnight for Freedom, intended to promote religious liberty both here and around the world. We’re meeting on the heels of the “Trinity Lutheran” decision, which is being hailed as a landmark victory for religious freedom. What’s your reaction to the decision? Does it indicate the wheels are turning in a direction more favorable to religious freedom?
I think we’ve had some good signs, and certainly some victories. ‘Trinity Lutheran’ certainly was a victory, but there’s a lot of work left to be done. I think, just to stay with Trinity Lutheran, that there are many states in the Union where there are things called ‘Blaine Amendments.’ Blaine was a congressman back in the 19th century who was not very friendly to Catholics or Catholic schools, so he modeled an amendment that said no form of aid, even for protection of life and safety, could go to religious-based schools, but he really meant Catholics.
What ‘Trinity Lutheran’ did was to challenge the Blaine amendment to the Missouri constitution, and they prevailed. Now, the ruling was not broad enough to strike down all Blaine amendments, it was fairly narrowly focused, and Chief Justice John Roberts put in a footnote to guarantee that we all understood this. However, it kind of put a dent in the Blaine amendments all around the country. It gives a key to other courts and legislatures that maybe this is not the way to the future, and that’s a great victory.
Is the endgame to see all those Blaine amendments fall?
I think we should want them to fall, sure. Because they were really born out of an anti-Catholic prejudice, and they don’t treat our children as equals. Our Catholic schools make a huge contribution. Folks in Baltimore, who are not part of the Church but of overseeing public order, tell us what a great thing it is that we’re running inner-city schools, educating kids who come from our under-served neighborhoods successfully, and they say, ‘Can you do more of this?’
Yet there is this roadblock in getting access for things like protection for life, health and safety, technology, textbooks, transportation, and helping these kids who would love to have this kind of education make the same kind of choice that everyone else does. So, I think this is a great indicator, and something to build upon.
Trump vowed his executive order on religious freedom is going to solve the problem with the contraception mandates for the Little Sisters of the Poor, but we’re still waiting for HHS regulations to tells us exactly what the fix looks like. Are you optimistic, or in wait-and-see mode?
I’m in wait-and-see mode, and maybe guardedly optimistic.
So the light’s not red or green, it’s amber?
Yes, it’s amber. It seems to me that we should be grateful that things seem to be moving in the right direction. The executive order that was leaked was pretty good, but we have to see what is going to come out of the mix. An executive order is a step in the right direction, and I think we should be happy when this kind of a burden is lifted up from our ministry, but we recognize that an executive order or fixed regulations can easily be undone.
Like the Mexico City policy, which is constantly coming and going depending on the administration …
Exactly, it’s like Mexico City. Inevitably there’s going to be, sometime in the future, God knows when, a change of administrations. People will come in with other philosophies, and it’s going to bounce back and forth. What we really need is some sort of stability, legislative protection, and a court decision is going to help us.
What do you think the hopes are for that right now?
Not too good. For example, we have the Conscience Protection Act, which is designed to address what has become an abortion mandate in California and New York. We have the Weldon Amendment, which would guarantee freedom of conscience for individuals and institutions in regard to funding abortion, but the remedies for having that breached are so vast and so big, that in reality, we have no remedies. The Conscience Protection Act is meant to address this. We might get it through, we’re hoping we’re going to get it through, it’s just really tough going.
Whatever they do to revise health care, we have a whole lot of concerns about the poor and about access to healthcare. But that is not going to address the conscience concerns, because it doesn’t look like it will at all.
Let me shift the focus internationally. If you were to talk to a typical Christian in Syria or Iraq, they would say we have issues that are a little bit more urgent, because we’re getting slaughtered. I know increasingly the fortnight for freedom has tried to take a more international approach, and the bishops have referred repeatedly to the situations of Christians in these countries. Where do you think we are there today, what is the biggest concern, and how can American Catholics help?
First of all, it’s absolutely true: We have fellow Christians, often on no one’s radar screens, who are dying as victims of genocide. They have to be in the forefront of our consciences. Number two, the State Department, at the urging principally of the Knights of Columbus, declared what is happening in the Middle East to be genocide. That’s great, but then what follows? What kind of aid reaches those people?
Right now, it’s folks on the ground, largely through Catholic aid agencies. I’m thinking about Catholic Relief Services, CNEWA, and the Knights, who are providing lots of support, and being Supreme Chaplain I know this.
But in terms of getting them practical political solutions, helping the refugees, that’s still very tough. We help with their very real human needs, we lift up their situations, we advocate. We have to do those things. There’s a great report, “Under Caesar’s Sword,” put out by the University of Notre Dame, which details all of these things. It is amazing how many places, how many parts of the world operate under overt religious persecution or some real hostile restraints to religious freedom. It’s about 70 percent of the world. Another hero on this is Nina Shea, who’s documented these things.
It’s about time our government paid attention. Angela Merkel identified Christianity as the most persecuted religion. It doesn’t mean we’re discarding other persecuted religions. There are Muslims who are persecuted, and they’re our brothers. There’s an ecumenism of blood.
That’s where we American Catholics have to respond: Advocacy, concrete help, and I think insisting that there be a political solution. What we recognize though, is that in the West, there is an increasing erosion of religious freedom, and an increasing tendency to restrict religious freedom. In Europe, in the United States, in Canada. Pope Francis calls it ‘polite persecution.’
When he uses the world ‘persecution,’ he indicates that there is a real solidarity here. We’re not on the same scale, at all. But I think that our experience of eroding religious liberty, finding it more difficult to be Catholic, should give us sympathy for the folks who are suffering, and should put us in solidarity with them.
Can you flip that around? Can’t you say that the more people in the United Sates are aware of what’s happening in other parts of the world, such as Iraq and Syria, North Korea, Eritrea, parts of India, and other places, where there is overt, lethal, violent persecution, the more it strengthens the argument for religious freedom here? One can say, ‘If you want to see what a society that’s completely lost respect for religious freedom looks like, there it is,’ and nobody wants that.
That’s right. It’s a two-way street. You bring up a good point, and it’s something the ad-hoc committee has struggled with and the standing committee will struggle with.
One of the difficult things is that in other parts of the world, a Christian might get arrested and churches are being closed. So, people here might think, oh yeah, there’s maybe some dust-up here, but it’s really not that big of a deal.
You have to look behind the veil to see what is going on, and what is coming up. Who would have ever though there would be an abortion mandate in our country? Who would have ever thought that if you were a Catholic doctor in our country, and you wanted to practice medicine according to your beliefs and teachings, you would have such a hard time from the American Medical Association? Who would have thought you could be disbarred for advocating traditional marriage?
What we are seeing is a tendency to silence people of faith. It’s akin to what’s happening on college campuses, where only one opinion can be expressed. People are looking more and more different, but they can only think one way. That’s a big current in our society right now. Defending religious freedom is not just a matter of going after bad laws or poor decisions. It’s looking at the signs of the times in our society, and to see what we need to do to defend our religious freedom in this context.
You mention getting relief to persecuted Christians abroad. As you know, there’s $1.4 billion set aside in the 2018 federal budget for genocide victims in Iraq and Syria, who numerically are mostly Christians. But public aid generally doesn’t reach Christians, because they don’t go to UN camps due to fear of extremist infiltration. Leaders of the local church have been saying they need to administer those funds so they reach Christians. Would it be rational for the U.S. government to allocate some share of that $1.4 billion to the local churches, to guarantee that it reaches all victims of genocide?
These good, heroic priests and pastors are right down there with their people, and they understand where they are and who they are, and they can eliminate the layers of fraud and corruption. It’s a little analogous to when charitable groups in the U.S., Church groups, used to send medicine and supplies down to Cuba. We always engaged the church in Cuba, because we knew that it would reach where it needed to reach.
Talk to Archbishop [Bashar] Warda in Erbil, Iraq, and that’s the first thing he’s going to tell you, that they can administer the funds. There should be no objection to doing this, because USAID works with groups such as Catholic Relief Services, other government agencies work with the Catholic Charities USA to deliver goods and services. We’re not talking about delivering anything that is sectarian. This is all about life, health, safety and most importantly, it’s about survival.
Writing a letter to elected officials saying that would be a wise use of resources would be helpful?