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Backgrounder: Long-awaited executive order on religion has unclear path ahead

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — At a White House Rose Garden ceremony May 4, President Donald Trump told a group of religious leaders: “It was looking like you’d never get here, but you got here, folks,” referring to their presence at the signing of the executive order on religious liberty.

Maybe some in the group wondered where “here” was since they hadn’t even seen the two-page executive order they were gathered to congratulate and only knew the general idea of it from a White House memo issued the previous night with just three bullet points.

People recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of a presentation on religious freedom at St. Patrick Church in Smithtown, N.Y., in 2016. (CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)

People recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of a presentation on religious freedom at St. Patrick Church in Smithtown, N.Y., in 2016. (CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)

The order didn’t seem to part any seas to make an immediate path to religious freedom, especially since it places decisions for how this will play out in the hands of federal agencies and the attorney general.

Catholic leaders in general seemed to view it with cautious optimism, praising the order as a first step but not the final word.

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who attended the White House ceremony also celebrating the National Day of Prayer, said immediately after the event that he had yet to see the entire executive order. He defined the principle of it: “There should not be an overly intrusive federal government” involved when people are exercising their religious freedom in the public square or institutions they run.

The two-page order, “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” was posted on the White House website hours after it was signed. It is half the length of a leaked draft version of this order published Feb. 1 in The Nation magazine. The order signed by the president is short on specifics and far less detailed than the leaked draft.

It devotes the most space to a promised easing of the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 law that bans churches and nonprofit organizations with tax-exempt status from taking part in partisan political activity. Although it would take an act of Congress to do away with this regulation, Trump can direct the Internal Revenue Service not to enforce it.

Many people likely aren’t familiar with the amendment by name, or they weren’t before this executive order, but they support the idea of it, according to a May 4 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute.

The poll shows 71 percent of Americans favor the law, as do most all major U.S. religious groups Only about one-third of white evangelical Protestants favor allowing churches to endorse candidates, compared to 56 percent who oppose it. Also, just 23 percent of white mainline Protestants, 25 percent of Catholics and 19 percent of black Protestants support churches endorsing political candidates.

In an interview with Catholic News Service at Reagan National Airport May 4 on his way back to his diocese for a confirmation Mass, Cardinal DiNardo said the amendment was likely more important to evangelical Christians than Catholics because, as he pointed out, the Catholic Church “has the tradition of ‘Faithful Citizenship,’” which he said puts the Johnson Amendment in a bigger context.

“Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the U.S. bishops’ quadrennial document on political responsibility, guides voters not according to the stances of specific political candidates but Catholic social teaching.

Richard Garnett, professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, said in an email to Catholic News Service that the order’s emphasis on weakening the Johnson Amendment did not seem particularly significant, noting: “it is already the case that the relevant agencies and officials are highly deferential — as they should be — to churches and religious leaders, especially when it comes to what’s said in the context of sermons and homilies.”

Commenting on another major point of the executive order, relief to employers with religious objections to include contraception coverage in their employees’ health care plans, Garnett called it “a good thing — and long overdue,” but he also noted that “such regulatory relief was already probably on its way, as a result of the Supreme Court’s decisions.”

In a statement after the order was signed, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price promised to take action “to safeguard the deeply held religious beliefs of Americans who provide health insurance to their employees.” The promise didn’t give any specifics.

The lack of details in the order even caused the American Civil Liberties Union, which had been poised to sue, to change its course. In a statement issued hours after the order’s signing, ACLU director Anthony Romero said the order had “no discernible policy outcome.”

“After careful review of the order’s text, we have determined that the order does not meaningfully alter the ability of religious institutions or individuals to intervene in the political process,” he said.

But the group also stands ready to sue the Trump administration if the order generates any official government action. Religious groups, for opposite reasons, likewise stand ready to see if the order has any teeth.

As Knights of Columbus Supreme Knight Carl Anderson said in a statement: “This order marks an important step in restoring those constitutional principles guaranteed to every American,” with the added caveat, “There is still work to be done.”

 

Contributing to this story was Chaz Muth.

Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.

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Bishops urging Trump to protect religious liberty

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WASHINGTON — Catholic Church leaders in a Feb. 16 statement said they were encouraged that President Donald Trump may be considering an executive order to protect religious freedom and said they would be grateful if he would move forward with the pledge that his administration would “do everything in its power to defend and protect religious liberty”

New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan has joined with other U.S. bishops in urging President Trump to affirm his pledge to protect religious liberty. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan has joined with other U.S. bishops in urging President Trump to affirm his pledge to protect religious liberty.
(CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

“As Christians, our goal is to live and serve others as the Gospel asks. President Trump can ensure that we are not forced from the public square,” said the statement from committee chairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The statement was jointly issued by: New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities; Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, chairman of the Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth; Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty; and Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

The church leaders said an executive order would “implement strong protections for religious freedom across the federal government in many of the areas where it has been eroded by the preceding administration, such as health coverage, adoption, accreditation, tax exemption, and government grants and contracts.”

“We ourselves, as well as those we shepherd and serve, would be most grateful if the president would take this positive step toward allowing all Americans to be able to practice their faith without severe penalties from the federal government,” they said.

A draft version of the executive order was leaked in late January called “Establishing a Government-Wide Initiative to Respect Religious Freedom.” When it failed to appear on the president’s desk, rumors were circulating that a scaled-back version might appear at his desk but there has been no word about it from the Trump administration.

The U.S. bishops posted an online letter for Catholics to send to the president urging him to sign the order after the draft version was leaked.

The Feb. 16 statement said the order would restore “the federal government’s proper relationship with the First Amendment and other laws protecting conscience and religious freedom will enable us to continue our service to the most vulnerable of Americans.”

The statement stressed that U.S. Catholic bishops have long supported religious liberty, adding that during the last several years “the federal government has eroded this fundamental right,” most notably with the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate for religious employers who do not fit the mandate’s narrow exemption including the Little Sisters of the Poor.

The USCCB leaders urged Trump to keep his promise and put an end to regulations and other mandates by the federal government “that force people of faith to make impossible choices. 

“We express our fervent hope that with new leadership in the executive branch, basic protections for religious practice may be restored and even strengthened,” they said.

The statement said an immediate remedy to the threats against religious freedom is needed and without it the church’s freedom to serve others “will remain in jeopardy and needless conflict between the faith community and the federal government will continue.”

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Full text: Pope’s speech at Independence Hall on religious liberty

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The following is the Vatican’s English translation of Pope Francis’ Sept. 26 address at the Meeting for Religious Liberty at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

Pope Francis spoke from the Gettysburg Lectern, which was used by President Abraham Lincoln to deliver the Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863. Courtesy of The Abraham Lincoln Foundation of The Union League of Philadelphia (“the ALF”), the lectern from which President Lincoln spoke just 272 words in dedicating part of the battlefield as the first National Soldiers Cemetery is part of the J. Howard Wert Collection and is on long-term loan from a private collector.

Dear Friends,

Pope Francis gives an address at Independence Mall in Philadelphia Sept. 26. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis gives an address at Independence Mall in Philadelphia Sept. 26. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

One of the highlights of my visit is to stand here, before Independence Hall, the birthplace of the United States of America. It was here that the freedoms, which define this country, were first proclaimed. The Declaration of Independence stated that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that governments exist to protect and defend those rights. Those ringing words continue to inspire us today, even as they have inspired peoples throughout the world to fight for the freedom to live in accordance with their dignity.

But history also shows that these or any truths must constantly be reaffirmed, re-appropriated and defended. The history of this nation is also the tale of a constant effort, lasting to our own day, to embody those lofty principles in social and political life. We remember the great struggles which led to the abolition of slavery, the extension of voting rights, the growth of the labor movement, and the gradual effort to eliminate every kind of racism and prejudice directed at successive waves of new Americans. This shows that, when a country is determined to remain true to its founding principles, based on respect for human dignity, it is strengthened and renewed.

All of us benefit from remembering our past. A people which remembers does not repeat past errors; instead, it looks with confidence to the challenges of the present and the future. Remembrance saves a people’s soul from whatever or whoever would attempt to dominate it or use it for their interests. When individuals and communities are guaranteed the effective exercise of their rights, they are not only free to realize their potential, they also contribute to the welfare and enrichment of society.

In this place, which is symbolic of the American way, I would like to reflect with you on the right to religious freedom. It is a fundamental right which shapes the way we interact socially and personally with our neighbors whose religious views differ from our own. Religious freedom certainly means the right to worship God, individually and in community, as our consciences dictate. But religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families.

Our various religious traditions serve society primarily by the message they proclaim. They call individuals and communities to worship God, the source of all life, liberty and happiness. They remind us of the transcendent dimension of human existence and our irreducible freedom in the face of every claim to absolute power. We need but look at history, especially the history of the last century, to see the atrocities perpetrated by systems which claimed to build one or another “earthly paradise” by dominating peoples, subjecting them to apparently indisputable principles and denying them any kind of rights. Our rich religious traditions seek to offer meaning and direction, “they have an enduring power to open new horizons, to stimulate thought, to expand the mind and heart” (Evangelii Gaudium, 256). They call to conversion, reconciliation, concern for the future of society, self-sacrifice in the service of the common good, and compassion for those in need. At the heart of their spiritual mission is the proclamation of the truth and dignity of the human person and human rights.

Our religious traditions remind us that, as human beings, we are called to acknowledge an Other, who reveals our relational identity in the face of every effort to impose “a uniformity to which the egotism of the powerful, the conformism of the weak, or the ideology of the utopian would seek to impose on us” (M. de Certeau).

In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality, it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others.

We live in a world subject to the “globalization of the technocratic paradigm” (Laudato Si’, 106), which consciously aims at a one-dimensional uniformity and seeks to eliminate all differences and traditions in a superficial quest for unity.  The religions thus have the right and the duty to make clear that it is possible to build a society where “a healthy pluralism which respects differences and values them as such” (Evangelii Gaudium, 255) is a “precious ally in the commitment to defending human dignity… and a path to peace in our troubled world” (ibid., 257).

The Quakers who founded Philadelphia were inspired by a profound evangelical sense of the dignity of each individual and the ideal of a community united by brotherly love. This conviction led them to found a colony which would be a haven of religious freedom and tolerance. That sense of fraternal concern for the dignity of all, especially the weak and the vulnerable, became an essential part of the American spirit. During his visit to the United States in 1987, St. John Paul II paid moving homage to this, reminding all Americans that: “The ultimate test of your greatness is the way you treat every human being, but especially the weakest and most defenseless ones” (Farewell Address, 19 September 1987, 3).

I take this opportunity to thank all those, of whatever religion, who have sought to serve the God of peace by building cities of brotherly love, by caring for our neighbors in need, by defending the dignity of God’s gift of life in all its stages, by defending the cause of the poor and the immigrant. All too often, those most in need of our help are unable to be heard. You are their voice, and many of you have faithfully made their cry heard. In this witness, which frequently encounters powerful resistance, you remind American democracy of the ideals for which it was founded, and that society is weakened whenever and wherever injustice prevails.

Among us today are members of America’s large Hispanic population, as well as representatives of recent immigrants to the United States. I greet all of you with particular affection! Many of you have emigrated to this country at great personal cost, but in the hope of building a new life. Do not be discouraged by whatever challenges and hardships you face. I ask you not to forget that, like those who came here before you, you bring many gifts to your new nation. You should never be ashamed of your traditions. Do not forget the lessons you learned from your elders, which are something you can bring to enrich the life of this American land. I repeat, do not be ashamed of what is part of you, your life blood. You are also called to be responsible citizens, and to contribute fruitfully to the life of the communities in which you live. I think in particular of the vibrant faith which so many of you possess, the deep sense of family life and all those other values which you have inherited. By contributing your gifts, you will not only find your place here, you will help to renew society from within.

Dear friends, I thank you for your warm welcome and for joining me here today. May this country and each of you be renewed in gratitude for the many blessings and freedoms that you enjoy. And may you defend these rights, especially your religious freedom, for it has been given to you by God himself. May he bless you all. I ask you, please, not to forget to pray for me.

 

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Fortnight for Freedom: Religious liberty includes being able to live faith’s values, pope says

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Real religious liberty includes the freedom to live according to the values taught by one’s faith, Pope Francis said.

“Religious freedom is not just a matter of thought or private devotion,” the pope said June 20. “It is the freedom to live — both privately and publicly — according to the ethical principles that are a consequence of the truth found.” Read more »

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Pope and Obama discuss religious freedom, life issues, immigration

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — In their first encounter, Pope Francis received U.S. President Barack Obama at the Vatican March 27 for a discussion that touched on several areas of tension between the Catholic Church and the White House, including religious freedom and medical ethics.

During an unusually long 50-minute meeting, the two leaders discussed “questions of particular relevance for the church in (the U.S.), such as the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection as well as the issue of immigration reform,” the Vatican said in statement.

U.S. President Barack Obama shares a laugh with Pope Francis as he receives a copy of the pope’s apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), during a private audience at the Vatican March 27. (CNS photo/Stefano Spaziani, pool)

The mentions of religious freedom and conscientious objection presumably referred to the contraception mandate in the new health care law, which has become a major source of conflict between the administration and the church.

According to the Vatican statement, Pope Francis and Obama also had an “exchange of views on some current international themes, and it was hoped that in areas of conflict, there would be respect for humanitarian and international law and a negotiated solution between the parties involved.”

In September, Pope Francis launched a high-profile campaign against Obama’s proposal for military strikes to punish the government of President Bashar Assad for its presumed use of chemical weapons. The pope wrote to Russian President Vladimir Putin, host of a G-20 summit, decrying the “futile pursuit of a military solution,” and a few days later led a prayer vigil for peace in Syria that drew some 100,000 people to St. Peter’s Square.

The Vatican did highlight two points of harmony with Obama in the discussions: immigration reform, on which the administration’s position is closer to that of U.S. bishops than that of the Republican opposition; and a “common commitment to the eradication of trafficking in human persons in the world.”

Later in the day, at a joint news conference with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, Obama said he had spent the “largest bulk of the time” with the pope discussing “issues of the poor, the marginalized, those without opportunity and growing inequality” and the “challenges of conflict and how elusive peace is around the world,” particularly in the Middle East.

Obama said Pope Francis “did not touch in detail” on the contraception mandate, but that in the president’s subsequent meeting with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, “we discussed briefly the issue of making sure that conscience and religious freedom was (sic) observed in the context of applying the law.”

“I pledged to continue to dialogue with the U.S. conference of bishops to make sure we can strike the right balance” on the issue, Obama said.

At the end of their talk, Pope Francis gave Obama a bound edition of his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), published last November. The gift prompted the president to respond: “You know, I actually will probably read this in the Oval Office when I am deeply frustrated, and I am sure it will give me strength and will calm me.”

“I hope,” the pope replied with a laugh.

In a December speech, Obama quoted a passage from the exhortation in which the pope lamented: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”

Pope Francis also presented Obama with a pair of bronze medallions, one commemorating the 17th-century construction of the colonnades around St. Peter’s Square; another portraying an angel that brings together the world’s North and South in “solidarity and peace founded on justice.”

“This gift is from the pope,” Pope Francis said of the first medallion. “But this other one is from Jorge Bergoglio. When I saw it, I said: “I’ll give to Obama, it’s the angel of peace.”

The president’s gift to the pope was a selection of fruit and vegetable seeds from the White House garden, in a box made from reclaimed wood used to build Baltimore’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the first Catholic cathedral in the United States.

“If you have a chance to come to the White House, we can show you our garden as well,” Obama said.

“Of course,” the pope replied.

Organizers of the September 2015 World Meeting of Families have voiced hopes that Pope Francis will attend that event, which could be the occasion for a state visit to the U.S.

“I invited and urged him to come to the United States, telling him that people would be overjoyed to see him,” Obama said later.

Obama’s visit to the Vatican came in the course of a six-day international trip that included stops in the Netherlands and Belgium and was scheduled to end in Saudi Arabia. The day before his meeting with Pope Francis, Obama met with European Union and NATO officials in Brussels, where he discussed economic and strategic responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier in the month.

The president’s motorcade entered the Vatican a few minutes after 10 a.m., under cloudy skies with temperatures in the low 50s. Archbishop Georg Ganswein, prefect of the papal household, greeted him in the San Damaso Courtyard of the Apostolic Palace, then led him upstairs to the pope’s private library, followed by Obama’s entourage, which included U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry; Susan Rice, the national security adviser, and Ambassador Ken Hackett, the U.S. envoy to the Holy See.

The pope greeted the president outside his library a few minutes before the appointed time of 10:30.

“Wonderful meeting you, I’m a great admirer,” Obama told the pope as they shook hands.

Inside the library, the two leaders sat down on either side of the pope’s desk, each with an interpreter beside him. Through his interpreter, Msgr. Mark Miles, the pope, who spoke in Spanish, could be heard telling the president: “I’d like you to feel really at home here.”

During an extended handshake at the end of the meeting, Obama told the pope: “My family has to be with me on this journey. They’ve been very strong. Pray for them. I would appreciate it.”

After his meeting with the pope, Obama met with Cardinal Parolin for more than half an hour. Kerry, Rice and Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican’s foreign minister, also participated in that meeting.

The Obama administration requires that nearly all health insurance plans, including those offered by most Catholic universities and agencies, cover sterilizations, contraceptives and some abortion-inducing drugs, all of which are forbidden by the church’s moral teaching. The U.S. bishops have strenuously opposed the contraception mandate and have rejected existing exemptions as inadequate.

Legalized abortion and embryonic stem-cell research, which Obama supports and Catholic teaching forbids, have also been sources of conflict between the president and the church since the start of his administration, and were among the major topics of discussion during Obama’s 2009 visit with Pope Benedict XVI.

 

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Phila. archbishop releases e-book on religious freedom

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At the heart of defeating attacks on the country’s religious liberty is the need for faithful to rebuild a Christian culture that serves as the essence of a democracy, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput wrote recently.

In his new e-book titled “A Heart on Fire: Catholic Witness and the Next America,” the former Denver archbishop discusses the ties between religious freedom and a good society.

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Knights of Columbus leader cites threats to religious institutions

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — Religious liberty was topic A at the eighth annual National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, held April 19 at a Washington hotel.

“Never in the lifetime of anyone present here has the religious liberty of the American people been as threatened as it is today,” warned Carl Anderson, supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, in remarks to the estimated 800 people in attendance.

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L.A. bishop: Religious exemption in health law not constitutional

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — The contraceptive mandate in the new health reform law is constitutional but the religious exemption to it represents an unconstitutional intrusion by government into decisions about religion, according to the former chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Catholic Education.

Speaking March 15 at The Catholic University of America on “Religious Liberty, Conscience and Contraception,” Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Curry of Los Angeles traced the current controversy over the Department of Health and Human Services’ requirement that most religious employers provide free contraceptives through their health insurance plans to misinterpretations of the First Amendment by politicians, courts and the public.

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U.S. bishops urge Catholics to fast for religious liberty – update

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The first version of this story from Catholic News Service incorrectly reported that the U.S. bishops set March 30 as a day of prayer and fasting for religious freedom. That date was only set by Pennsylvania bishops for their state.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. bishops are urging Catholics and “all people of faith” across the nation to join them in prayer and fasting for religious freedom and conscience protection.

Among current threats to religious liberty, they said, is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services mandate that forces employers, including religious ones, to provide coverage of contraception/sterilization in their health plans.

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Obama’s compromise offers ‘next to nothing,’ bishops’ president says

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Catholic News Service

ROME —- Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan of New York said Feb. 13 that President Barack Obama’s proposed revision to the contraceptive mandate in the health reform law did nothing to change the U.S. bishops’ opposition to what they regard as an unconstitutional infringement on religious liberty.

“We bishops are pastors, we’re not politicians, and you can’t compromise on principle,” said Cardinal-designate Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “And the goal posts haven’t moved and I don’t think there’s a 50-yard line compromise here,” he added.

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