Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., gave three reasons why religious freedom is important to the Catholic Church in a speech July 30 at a conference on the issue at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C.
“We are called by Jesus Christ to inspire a culture, religious freedom gives us a space to serve, and we can solve social problems better when all of us work together to find a solution,” said the archbishop, who is chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Religious Liberty.
He began by describing the teachings that lead the Church to support religious freedom: “The Catholic Church teaches that religious liberty is rooted in the dignity of the human person. The human person has dignity because we are made in the image of God, and so each of us has the capacity to seek the truth about God.”
This vision of the human person, he said, is essential to healthy politics.
“We want our political culture to respect that freedom as much as possible, because when we lose respect for the search for truth, our politics degenerates into power-seeking for the purpose of imposing one’s will on others,” Archbishop Kurtz said. The end result is “losing respect for basic human dignity.”
In contrast, protecting religious freedom is part of the Church’s “vision of human flourishing,” he said.
Leading into his second point, he said that the vision of human flourishing the Church proposes includes the ability for the Catholic Church to have “the space to serve with integrity.”
The archbishop expressed concerns about threats to the Church’s ability to fulfill its mission.
He said that the Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate imposed on all employers, including religious employers with a moral objection to it, was one example of an attempt to force Christians to violate their consciences.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS, implemented the mandate as part of the Affordable Care Act.
Although the Trump administration removed the mandate, Archbishop Kurtz expressed concern about the state of Catholic child welfare organizations.
“One of our biggest concerns is the ability of our child welfare organizations to place the foster children with families consistent with our teaching.”
He explained that the opioid crisis, among other things, was leading to a noticeable increase in the number of children requiring help from child welfare organizations.
“Yet, as a real crisis emerges, faith-based child welfare providers are being targeted for closure because of the convictions about the family. Service providers who have a track record of excellence have been shut down.”
He mentioned that the city of Philadelphia was trying to force Catholic foster care providers to comply with its nondiscrimination policies and require them to place children with same-sex couples, and that the ACLU sued the state of Michigan because Michigan has a law permitting foster care agencies with religious beliefs to reject qualified same-sex couples as placements.
“Faith-based organizations have a crucial role to play in adoption and foster care,” he said.
“There are some who claim that faith-based organizations must give up our convictions when we partner with the government to provide much-needed social services,” but Archbishop Kurtz said forcing them to give up their convictions is not necessary.
“Faith-based organizations are some of the most trusted groups within our society and excluding them makes no sense in a holistic society like ours,” he said.
“We’re very grateful for all the service done by people of faith every day both in our country and around the world. Religious freedom is vital to the common good.”
At the same conference, Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke about ongoing threats to religious freedom and what can be done to halt them.
“Let’s be frank. A dangerous movement is now challenging and eroding our great devotion to religious freedom. It must be confronted, both intellectually and politically, and defeated,” he said.
Religious freedom, he said, is more than just the freedom to worship. “The Constitution’s protections don’t end at the parish parking lot.”
Sessions explained several kinds of actions the Department of Justice (DOJ) is taking as it “actively seeks to protect people of faith.”
“Since January 17, we’ve obtained 11 indictments and seven convictions in cases about arson or other attacks or threats on houses of worship,” and he also said the DOJ was working to prosecute in cases involving threats made against people because of their religion.
Sessions also said that the DOJ was filing civil actions in courts when religious groups are discriminated against in zoning laws.
“We’ll keep going to court, and I believe we’re going to keep winning,” he said.
Sessions said he aimed to stay in touch with religious groups to make sure their concerns were being heard.
He also announced on July 30 the formation of a Religious Liberty Task Force, which he said would help the DOJ implement fully the guidance it issued last October to all administrative agencies and executive departments regarding religious liberty protections in federal law.
Sessions also said why fighting for religious liberty is important on a human level.
“There can be no doubt that we are stronger as a nation because of the contributions of religious people. People in Washington have no idea how much our religious communities are with people in the situations—birth, death, marriage, divorce—that most greatly affect human beings.”