2012 Could be Year of Religious Liberty
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
February 2012

When I started with the North Dakota Catholic Conference in 1994 religious liberty neither the state conference nor the U.S. Bishops conference devoted much time to religious liberty issues. The bishops cared about religious freedom, but the threats were rare. Things have changed and 2012 is shaping up to be the year of religious liberty challenges. Consider the following:

  • On January 20, 2012, the Obama Administration confirmed that it would force nearly all private health plans to give free sterilization and contraceptive procedures, regardless of whether the insurer, the employer or other plan sponsor, or even the woman herself objects to such coverage. The exemption provided for "religious employers" is so narrow that it fails to cover the vast majority of faith-based organizations, including Catholic hospitals, universities, and service organizations that help millions every year.

  • On June 12, 2012, North Dakotans will vote on Measure 3 and decide whether to restore religious liberty as a fundamental freedom in North Dakota.

  • In September of 2012, the Obama Administration denied the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops a grant to help victims of human trafficking solely because it would not provide abortion referrals and contraception to the victims, despite the fact that USCCB had successfully operated the program for years. The denial triggered congressional hearings investigating whether the Administration acted with an anti-Catholic bias.

  • In one of the most important religious freedom cases in decades, the Obama Administration recently argued that the U.S. Constitution does not allow churches to choose their ministers without government interference. Thankfully, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected that position in January.

  • Several states will consider legalizing same-sex “marriages” this year. Legal recognition of such unions raise a number of serious religious liberty and conscience problems. Recognizing these threats, on January 12, 2012, religious leaders issued a joint statement focusing on the threats to religious freedom in same-sex union legislation.

  • Last year all dioceses in Illinois discontinued providing foster care services because of a state law mandating that they provide adoption services to same-sex couple.

  • In recent months universities around the country have suspended religious clubs on campuses unless the clubs allow members who don’t share the club’s beliefs.

  • The U.S. Department of State has started pushing for all foreign aid programs to include contraception programs, which would exclude Catholic Relief Services from partnering with the U.S. government.

  • The U.S. Department of Justice has moved from not just defending the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to attacking DOMA’s constitutionality, claiming that supporters of DOMA (i.e., the Catholic Church) are motivated by bias and prejudice. As Archbishop Timothy Dolan put it: “If the label of ‘bigot’ sticks to us—especially in court—because of our teaching on marriage, we’ll have church-state conflicts for years to come as a result.”

  • In a rare move, on January 19, 2012 Pope Benedict XVI spoke on the threats to religious liberty in the United States saying: “It is imperative that the entire Catholic community in the United States come to realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness.”

  • In September the U.S. Bishops established the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty and immediately made religious liberty a top priority for the Catholic Church in the U.S.

Religious freedom has come to the forefront. At stake is not just our “First Freedom.” Also at stake is whether can be a church that saves unborn lives, promotes marriage, feeds the poor, buries the dead, comforts the afflicted, heals the sick, and strengthens families. We cannot do any of these if we lose our right to religious freedom.