Witness for the Wall: AU's Lynn Counters Church-State Agenda of Religious Right, Catholic Bishops at U.S. House Hearing on Threats to Religious Liberty

By Brown, Simon | Church & State, December 2011 | Go to article overview

Witness for the Wall: AU's Lynn Counters Church-State Agenda of Religious Right, Catholic Bishops at U.S. House Hearing on Threats to Religious Liberty


Brown, Simon, Church & State


If you spent enough time listening to Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), you would think that religious liberty in America is under unprecedented attack.

"Despite the fundamental nature of religious freedom and its importance in American life, in recent years religious freedom has come under attack as never before," said Franks, chair of the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution.

At an Oct. 26 subcommittee hearing on "The State of Religious Liberty in the United States," Franks went on to blame this attack on "those who would trample underfoot the religious freedom of their fellow Americans [and] do so in the name of a 'strict wall of separation between church and state.'"

Franks also said at the hearing that those who believe in the church-state wall are misinterpreting history and that while the U.S. Constitution makes no mention of this principle, the Soviet Constitution did.

These words are not surprising given that Franks set up the Arizona Family Research Institute, an affiliate of the James Dobson-founded Focus on the Family.

What is surprising is that he isn't entirely wrong. Religious liberty is under assault in the United States, but it is not the majority faith groups Franks wants to protect that are in trouble - it is the liberties of religious minorities and nonbelievers that are most threatened.

Franks and his allies in the Religious Right have a clear agenda, which was on full display during the recent hearing. They want to convince Congress to write overly broad exemptions for religious organizations from laws intended to provide healthcare, extend civil rights protections and grant civil marriage rights to same-sex couples.

Roman Catholic and evangelical Christian leaders are agitating in Washington, D.C., the state legislatures and the courts for open-ended exemptions for "faith-based" colleges, hospitals and social service agencies even if those ministries receive taxpayer funding.

The hearing provided a platform for Bishop William C. Lori, head of the newly formed Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). It also gave a soapbox to Colby May, an attorney with TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ).

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn was there to offer an alternative perspective, speaking up for the church-state wall and individual freedom.

Lori, a bishop from Bridgeport, Conn., spoke on behalf of the USCCB, which this fall issued a manifesto on threats to religious liberty. He offered a list of what he said are the most egregious infringements on Catholic liberties, most of them policies put in place by President Barack Obama's administration.

These consist of:

* a mandate by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that contraception and sterilization must be covered by private health plans with very few exceptions;

* an HHS requirement that insurers provide the "full range of reproductive services" to sex-trafficking victims and refugees who are unaccompanied minors in its cooperative agreements and government contracts;

* U.S. Agency for International Development "increasingly requiring" HIV prevention activities and reproductive health services in a variety of international relief and development programs;

* the Department of Justice classifying the "Defense of Marriage Act" - that bars federal recognition of same-sex marriage - as a form of bigotry;

* the Department of Justice challenging the "ministerial exception" in the Supreme Court; and

* state same-sex marriage legislation that provides "only a very narrow religious exemption."

In his testimony, Lori followed the hierarchy's party line, criticizing healthcare mandates that don't allow religious organizations to pick and choose which services they provide and laws that mandate a "redefinition of marriage. …

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