A Tale of Two Coasts: Religious Freedom and the Churches

By Jim Tonkowich Published on March 19, 2015

The Washington, DC City Counsel is doing its best to strip Catholic schools of their Catholic identity. If Congress allows the recently passed “The Human Rights Amendment Act” to stand (Congress has the authority to overturn DC bills), all religious schools will be forced to teach the DC City Counsel’s ideas about sexuality, gender, marriage and family rather than those of their church.

As the Heritage Foundation’s Ryan Anderson and Sarah Torres write in a new report, “If the Human Rights bill goes into effect, it will severely infringe on the ability of DC religious schools to operate according to their religious beliefs. After all, many religions believe that we are created male and female and that male and female are created for each other.” Then they correctly conclude, “The government should not force religious institutions to violate these beliefs.”

Meanwhile in San Francisco, schoolteachers, parents, alumni, and students are doing their best to strip Catholic schools of their Catholic identity.

Last month San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone made what was apparently a long overdue addition to the Catholic school faculty handbook. He thinks (prepare to be shocked) that Catholic schools should be faithful to the Catholic Church.

In his statement of February 5, Archbishop Cordileone acknowledged, “that some of our administrators, faculty or staff may not be Catholics and some may be Catholics who are struggling to achieve fidelity to some of the teachings of the Church.” Nevertheless, insofar as they work at a Catholic school, “administrators, faculty and staff of any faith or of no faith, are expected to arrange and conduct their lives so as not to visibly contradict, undermine or deny” the teachings of the Church.

After all, he wrote in an accompanying letter, when those in Catholic institutions endorse secular values and demean the teachings of the Church, “it creates a toxic confusion about our fundamental values among both students and others in society at large. As teaching institutions, therefore, Catholic schools have to be very clear about what constitutes the true teachings of the Catholic Church. They owe that to the teachers, to the students, and to the parents of the students.”

The handbook lists specifics including the teaching authority of the Church, the priesthood, sacraments, hell, justice, human life, and — here, of course, is where the trouble begins — sexuality and marriage.

The response has been not only student and faculty protests and petitions, but according to Catholic News Agency (CNA), “concerned parents” hired Singer Associates, a high-priced public relations firm, to fight the archbishop. The article also notes that Jesuit University of San Francisco and assorted dissenting Catholic groups have thrown their weight behind the protesters.

Most people recognize the DC case as a question of religious freedom. The City Counsel, which has power over what is taught in the public schools, is arrogating power over what is taught in private religious schools thus censoring or replacing Church doctrines.

But San Francisco is no less a question of religious freedom — religious freedom for churches.

While I have no doubt that the governments of San Francisco and of California would happily deny the Catholic Church religious freedom, the archbishop is dealing with individuals who believe no less than the DC government that Christian doctrine is malleable and should conform to the Spirit of the Age. Churches that disagree with that Spirit should be forced to comply.

But, you ask, isn’t that backwards? Isn’t it Archbishop Cordileone who is violating religious freedom?

No, not at all. Churches are voluntary organizations. No one has to join. If, however, you choose to join — be it a Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, or independent church — you voluntarily subject your beliefs and your behavior to the discipline of that church. Furthermore, even a secular corporation requires employees to support corporate mission and beliefs. That a church or religious organization requires the same thing is more than reasonable. If you don’t like the mission and beliefs and those are not about to change, you’re free to leave. Thus individual religious freedom remains intact.

Typically we think about religious freedom only in individual terms: I have my right to my beliefs. But religious freedom includes the freedom of churches and religious organizations to define and propagate their beliefs and to pursue their missions even when — make that especially when — those beliefs and missions are out of step with the prevailing culture inside or outside the church.

N.B.: A petition supporting Archbishop Cordileone can be found here.

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