Religious Americans’ lives possibly at risk in 2024, new report by U.S. bishops says

St. Paul vandalism 10-3-23 Vandalism of a pro-life display outside St. Paul Catholic Church in Fenton, Missouri on Oct. 3, 2023. | Credit: Katherine Burns

After a year of renewed attacks on churches and religious centers, the U.S. bishops said in a new report released today that attacks on houses of worship constitute the “largest threat to religious liberty in 2024” and could threaten “the very lives of people of faith.”

Titled the “State of Religious Liberty in the United States,” the report is released annually by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Committee for Religious Liberty.

The report said that while the committee “was founded in response to increasing legal threats to the free exercise of religion,” the bishops felt “compelled to decry foreseeable threats to the very lives of people of faith here in the United States.”

“There is no greater threat to religious liberty than for one’s house of worship to become a place of danger, and the country sadly finds itself in a place where that danger is real,” the bishops said in the report.

What is the bishops’ religious liberty report? 

The bishops’ report is based on data gathered by the Committee for Religious Liberty, led by Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana.

Rhoades wrote that the report has “sought to raise awareness about our religious liberty concerns” and represents “one more resource to help all Catholics as they seek to live out their faith in this great country.”

“This report outlines the major issues that have occupied the Committee for Religious Liberty over the past year,” he said. “It reveals a wide range of concerns, such as federal agencies misusing laws meant to aid pregnant women in order to promote abortion, threats to the safety of our Jewish and Muslim neighbors, and the FBI’s suspicion of Catholics who worship in the Traditional Latin Mass.”

Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, was tabbed as the next chair of the Committee for Religious Liberty on Nov. 16, 2022, in Baltimore. Credit: Shannon Mullen/CNA
Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, was tabbed as the next chair of the Committee for Religious Liberty on Nov. 16, 2022, in Baltimore. Credit: Shannon Mullen/CNA

Are religious Americans’ lives really at risk?

According to the bishops’ report, “recent years have seen an alarming rate of vandalism, arson, and other property destruction at Catholic sites.”

Since the overturn of Roe v. Wade in the June 2022 Supreme Court Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, attacks against the Catholic Church as well as pro-life organizations have risen considerably. The bishops said that annual hate crime statistics gathered by the FBI in 2022 reported anti-Catholic crimes as nearly 75% higher than for any other bias.

All this is compounded with, the bishops said, a “general failure” on the part of the “federal government to apprehend and prosecute the perpetrators of such attacks.”

The bishops said that “were this threat limited to a continuation of the property crimes that have been perpetrated on Catholic churches over recent years, perhaps it would not be the committee’s chief concern. However, boiling tensions over the Israel-Hamas conflict have elevated the chances of a terrorist attack on a synagogue or mosque.”

Meanwhile, they said, the “highly charged atmosphere around the 2024 election might lead far-left extremists to escalate the severity of attacks on Catholic churches, and far-right extremists may view Catholic churches and Catholic Charities facilities as targets for anti-immigrant sentiment or, worse, violent action.”

In response, the bishops urged the faithful to “do our part to foster a society free of hatred” by speaking up for the inherent equal dignity of all people, bearing public witness to Christ’s call to care and compassion for the vulnerable, and praying for peace.

The bishops also told the faithful to be conscious of threats while at houses of worship and to encourage their pastors to use the “Protecting Houses of Worship” resources made available by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. 

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What threats did religious Americans face in 2023? 

The bishops’ report tracked many concerning trends affecting people of faith in both the political, legislative, and legal spheres as well as the cultural sphere.

On the cultural end, the report said there was a rise in antisemitic and anti-Muslim sentiment as well as continued acts of vandalism and intimidation toward Catholics and other Christians.

The bishops mentioned the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team’s decision to publicly honor an openly anti-Catholic hate group called the “Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence” during last year’s “Pride Month” game in June.

Combining the political and legal with the cultural, the bishops noted the growing controversy in schools surrounding gender identity, a debate they said “has manifested more intensely in schools than in any other [area].”

“The controversies over public schools’ embrace of gender ideology,” the bishops said, “has lent momentum to the push for school choice, as religious parents look for school environments that are compatible with their beliefs.”

This, however, has resulted in more legal battles as some states such as Colorado and groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and others have acted to keep religious schools from receiving any public funding because they say the schools discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

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Additionally, “at least three states — Washington, Vermont, and Delaware — have introduced bills to eliminate the clergy-penitent privilege,” potentially forcing priests to break the seal of confession or face legal consequences, the report said.

Religious liberty and the federal government

The partisan division in both houses of Congress kept it from taking much action, either positive or negative, regarding religious liberty.

Several bills considered by Congress, however, do pose significant threats to religious rights should they ever be passed into law. The bishops said that the Equality Act, considered by Congress in 2023, “raises the greatest threat to religious freedom currently before Congress.”

According to the report, the Equality Act is a sweeping bill that would likely require taxpayer funding for abortion, force religious doctors and hospitals to perform abortions, require employers to cover abortion in their insurance plans, mandate doctors to suggest children receive transgender surgeries, force doctors to perform such surgeries, threaten parents’ custody of their children if they object to transgender services, and much more. 

Mark Houck talks to reporters outside the U.S. District courthouse in Philadelphia with his lawyers, Peter Breen (left), Brian McMonagle (right), and Andrew Bath (background) following his acquittal on two charges of violating the FACE Act, Jan. 30, 2023. Credit: Joe Bukuras/CNA
Mark Houck talks to reporters outside the U.S. District courthouse in Philadelphia with his lawyers, Peter Breen (left), Brian McMonagle (right), and Andrew Bath (background) following his acquittal on two charges of violating the FACE Act, Jan. 30, 2023. Credit: Joe Bukuras/CNA

Regarding another federal law, the report noted the effort by some Republicans to repeal the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, which, the bishops said, “has been used almost exclusively to protect abortion clinics and has never been used to protect a church.”

“The lopsided enforcement of the FACE Act has long been noted but received renewed attention in 2023, as increasing attacks on pro-life pregnancy resource centers went largely unpunished, while some actions brought against protesters outside abortion clinics seemed unjustifiably severe,” the bishops said, noting Catholic father and pro-lifer Mark Houck, whose home was raided by armed agents.

Additionally, the report also cautioned against other bills such as the Secure the Border Act and the Protecting Federal Funds from Human Trafficking and Smuggling Act that would curtail the Church’s ability to give aid in the humanitarian crisis at the southern border by restricting funds from going to such groups as Catholic Charities. 

Meanwhile, the report said that the Biden administration effectuated the “most consequential actions” on religious liberty primarily through several key regulations issued in 2023. Among these were the HHS’ contraceptive mandate and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s regulations that threaten to require religious employers to make accommodations for abortion, contraception, and sterilization. 

Also notable, the report mentioned the FBI’s “Richmond memo,” leaked in January 2023, that revealed evidence that several FBI offices were investigating and surveilling certain Catholic parishes that were described in the memo as “radical traditionalist Catholics” sympathetic to “extremist ideological beliefs and violent rhetoric.”

More hopeful, the report noted two victories for religious liberty in the Supreme Court. Groff v. DeJoy and 303 Creative v. Elenis, which helped to solidify religious rights in the public sphere.

Other grave threats to religious liberty

The bishops said that the coming year holds some significant threats to the religious rights of religious Americans that will likely be further exacerbated by the election year, most especially because of the emphasis on abortion, gender ideology, and immigration.

According to the bishops, the greatest legal threat to religious freedom facing Americans in the coming year is a federal regulation change known as Section 1557, which they say could be imposed by the Department of Health and Human Services and will “likely impose a mandate on doctors to perform gender transition procedures and possibly abortions” and “appears to be specifically intended to force Catholic hospitals and religious health care workers to perform harmful gender transition procedures, including on children.”

Other upcoming grave threats to religious freedom highlighted by the report include a federal regulation the bishops say could force Catholic hospitals to perform gender-switching surgeries, the suppression of religious speech on marriage and sexual difference, threats to religious charities aiding migrants at the southern border, and a new federal regulation enforcing a mandate that employers give workers paid leave to obtain abortions.

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