Catholic News Service
Joseph Daly, a Knight of Columbus, participates in the recitation of the rosary during a religious freedom rally June 27 in West Islip, New York. 

Catholic News Service

Joseph Daly, a Knight of Columbus, participates in the recitation of the rosary during a religious freedom rally June 27 in West Islip, New York. 

This is the fourth in a series on faithful citizenship. 

Oregon tends to lead the pack in causes favored by some wings of the political left — legal abortion, assisted suicide, gay marriage, recreational marijuana.  

Some fear that next on the progressive docket could be tax exemption for churches and the right of church agencies to operate according to their ancient beliefs, especially in the dignity of life and marriage.  

‘Striking change’

“There has been a striking change just in the last 10 or even just five years,” says Bishop Liam Cary of the Diocese of Baker in central and eastern Oregon.

Bishop Cary cites demographics. Among the fastest-growing groups in Oregon is the population without religious affiliation. That means they have no personal interest in protecting religious freedom. In their minds, personal choice trumps religious liberty, the bishop says.  

Also new is the government’s willingness to use policy to try to force people to act against conscience. On a federal level, groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor have faced requirements to include contraception in their employee health benefit package. In Oregon, state labor officials fined Christian bakery owners in Gresham for trying to refer a gay couple elsewhere for a wedding cake. In 2011, Catholic Charities of Oregon lost a federal contract to aid human-trafficking victims, apparently because the agency would not offer contraception and abortion as part of its services. 

“In America, and nobly I think, we have long taken care not to force the conscience,” Bishop Cary says, pointing to the origins of the nation as a refuge from religious persecution. That core tradition is eroding, he argues. 

Religious colleges in Oregon have faced pressure on health coverage, and religious hospitals have lost out on state contracts for refusing to offer abortions.    

“It’s become ‘Comply or be persecuted,’” Bishop Cary says. “Catholics should not just accept this.”

He suggests that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act be revived after what he calls “unjust criticism” in places like Indiana.  

‘Thought police’

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says religious liberty is a natural human right, not a privilege offered by the state.  

“Society ought to construct itself to honor that,” says Rolando Moreno, director of the Office of Catechesis and Faith Formation for the Archdiocese of Portland. 

If religious conscience is not honored, we end up with “thought police,” Moreno says. “You can’t think a certain way anymore because an elected majority deems it incorrect. Or you are called bigoted if you don’t go along with the status quo.” 

The church does not want a theocracy, but recognizes a shortcoming in democracy — the state can override natural law.  

“Objective truth is no longer recognized,” Moreno says.  

Eventually, a state that can create its own version of truth can take steps to make it hard for a religious body to exist, Moreno explains. As an example, he cites threats from federal agencies to remove Franciscan University of Steubenville, in Ohio, from the list of colleges approved for federal aid because the school refuses to cover abortion and contraception in its employee health plan. 

 Subtle but dangerous

Todd Cooper, director of the Department of Special Ministries of the Archbishop of Portland, says most Catholics don’t appreciate the implications of attacks on religious liberty. The erosion has been subtle, Cooper says, but the danger is great. 

When judges are appointed in many parts of the nation, especially Oregon, they face a litmus test — they need to support abortion rights. The same goes for those who seek political office. Cooper says the dynamic keeps many Catholics out of public life.

Oregon’s pharmacists have long faced state-backed coercion when it comes to preparing drugs for chemical abortions, assisted suicide and the death penalty. And Catholic agencies and businesses appear not to be getting government contracts, Cooper says. 

The archdiocese has noted a government attempt to narrow the definition of what a religious organization is. That means that the few protections left won’t cover as many groups.    

Cooper says the state should be doing just the opposite, seeking to help more people live by their deeply held beliefs.  

“This is not specifically a Catholic issue,” Cooper concludes. “It’s a religious freedom issue.”

More on way

People in the pews care about religious liberty.  

Catherine Harrington, a member of St. Mary Parish in Corvallis, takes Communion to assisted-living centers, among other acts of kindness. 

She says she never thought she’d see the day when people like her who stand up for long-held and commonsense beliefs would be classified as haters. 

“They say we are intolerant,” Harrington says. “There is a lot of twisting and misinterpretation of what Catholics do.” 

Harrington fears that religious people will face more persecution no matter who wins the presidency next month.

“We, right now, are in jeopardy,” she says. “We need to pray for protection.”