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(CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic)

Participants recite the rosary during a religious freedom rally June 27 at St. John the Baptist Diocesan High School in West Islip, N.Y.

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High stakes for religious freedom, free speech seen in U.S. election
September 19th, 2016
By Tom Tracy

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – With every passing U.S. election cycle, First Amendment and religious freedom-minded voters and watchdogs might be tempted to think, “This is the election that will most matter in our lifetimes.”

But as recent years have brought a wave of religious liberty court battles and the federal contraceptive mandate infringing on an array of operations by church entities – along with a U.S. Supreme Court vacancy to be filled – 2016 might be a seminal electoral year.

“I have been doing this 25 years, and I don’t recall the same level of concern,” said Mark Harrington, executive director of the Ohio-based Created Equal, a nonsectarian pro-life organization, who spoke with Catholic News Service about the upcoming religious liberties landscape in light of the presidential campaign.

Harrington pointed out he was part of an audit in 2009 by the Internal Revenue Service following comments he made about one of the presidential candidates. He said he speaks as a private individual when he asserts that he worries about the pace at which federal government has been chipping away at freedom of speech and religious liberties under the current administration.

“Each cycle I keep saying this is the most important election in my lifetime and this one really is, because of the Supreme Court mainly,” Harrington said, referring the vacancy left this year by the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the leading conservative voice on the court.

“Whatever is decided (this year), those two issues – religious liberty and abortion – hang in the balance, and if the Supreme Court would tilt to the left, we could see an entire generation pass before we get back to a place where the courts protect life and religious liberty,” he said.

Without endorsing candidates or parties, Harrington said he predicts that if elected president, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton would continue with President Barack Obama’s domestic policies of curtailing religious liberties. Harrington sees some relief in Republican nominee Donald Trump’s recent statements, saying that Trump, if elected, would consider doing away with the so-called Johnson Amendment, which threatens religious institutions with the loss of their tax-exempt status if they openly advocate their political views.

In Chicago, Tom Brejcha, president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Society, which is fighting religious freedom court battles around the country, noted that he “is not a fan” of either the Democratic or Republican candidates and that he expected his organization will be busy no matter who is elected president.

Brejcha does point out that the rhetoric from the Democratic nominee and her running mate, Tim Kaine, strike him as more openly anti-religious and anti-Catholic – a potentially even more vigorous continuation of what many say are Obama’s anti-religion policies.

“We are in a time way beyond perilous, and some of the statements and edicts coming down from on high in Washington reflect that,” he said, pointing to the recent comments by the chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Martin Castro, that the phrases “religious liberty” and “religious freedom” were “code words” used to discriminate.

The tragic irony is that the civil rights movement and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a movement born out of the Christian churches of the South, he said.

In addition to ongoing court battles, religious institutions, including the U.S. bishops through their national Fortnight for Freedom campaign, have waged a response to the health care contraception mandate and other legal directives that impact the ability of Catholic entities to serve the poor and vulnerable in accordance with human dignity and the church’s teaching. The Health and Human Services mandate that most religious employers must provide sterilization, contraception and abortion-inducing drugs as part of their health care plans forces religious institutions to facilitate or fund a product contrary to their own moral teaching. Other mandates or laws impact adoption and foster-care services, immigration services and Catholic humanitarian services.

“Without religious liberty properly understood, all Americans suffer, deprived of the essential contribution in education, health care, feeding the hungry, civil rights, and social services that religious Americans make every day, both here at home and overseas,” the bishops wrote in a 2012 statement.

From September 22, 2016 issue of Catholic San Francisco.


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