Conn. government threatening religious freedom, Bishop Lori warns

Bishop William Lori
Bishop William Lori


Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut has warned the faithful of his diocese that their fight for religious freedom has just begun, despite the defeat of a law that would have stripped authority from Catholic clergy.

In a pastoral letter released in October, entitled “Let Freedom Ring,” Bishop Lori said that authentic religious freedom was coming under fire from legislators, judges and other officials. He warned of a “growing tendency in our state to view religious liberty as a grant to citizens by civil authorities,” rather than a God-given right that the state should acknowledge and protect.

Alongside this misconception, he said, there is a tendency to view religion as an exclusively private matter that must be prevented from influencing society. Some advocates of this view reinterpret the First Amendment as guaranteeing “freedom from religion,” effectively banishing faith from public life.

In his letter, Bishop Lori alluded to some government officials' attempts to obscure authentic religious freedom, by speaking only of believers' relatively narrow “freedom of worship” rather than the “free exercise of religion” that the U.S. Constitution guarantees.

A number of direct threats to the Church in Connecticut prompted Bishop Lori to speak out this fall, including last year's widely-criticized State Bill 1098. The measure's stated purpose was “to revise the corporate governance provisions applicable to the Roman Catholic Church.” It would have effectively barred bishops and clergy from any direct involvement in the administration of parishes.

S.B. 1098 utilized the strategy of limiting the concept of religious freedom, proposing to allow bishops and pastors to control “matters pertaining exclusively to religious tenets and practices” while denying them administrative authority in their parishes.

The bill's sponsors withdrew their proposal after it triggered a statewide uproar and attracted national attention in March 2009. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' general counsel Anthony Picarello said the bill was “not even close to constitutional,” and compared it to notorious anti-Catholic laws of the nineteenth century.

While the Connecticut legislature did not pass that bill, it did pass legislation forcing Catholic hospitals to assist in possible chemical abortions after cases of rape. In his pastoral letter, Bishop Lori revisited the 2007 controversy over the “Plan B law,” which he said was “aimed at Catholic hospitals.”

That law forbade medical professionals from administering an ovulation test to determine whether a rape victim's use of emergency contraception might cause an abortion. Only by examining both a pregnancy test and an ovulation test, can physicians know whether the drug endangers a human life.

After attempting to fight the law, Bishop Lori stated in 2007 that “reluctant compliance” was “the only viable option.” The state's Catholic hospitals currently provide the drug after performing only the pregnancy test, despite the documented risk of chemical abortions.

Commenting on the matter in his recent letter, Bishop Lori said the “Plan B law” had severely harmed the religious freedom and conscience rights of all citizens, especially healthcare professionals.

Bishop Lori also called attention to his state's redefinition of marriage as any union of two consenting adults. That redefinition occurred, in his words, “not because (Connecticut) citizens voted for it, but rather because four justices of the Supreme Court decided that traditional marriage between a man and a woman has 'no rational basis'.”

The decision, he remarked, establishes in law the unreasonable principle that marriage has nothing to do with either procreation or the raising of children.

Bishop Lori noted that the Church struggles legally and financially due to liability burdens. Connecticut's statute of limitations on civil claims of sexual abuse is 30 years, an unusually long period that allows virtually anyone to ensnare the diocese in a lawsuit long after the accused person or any possible witnesses have died.

By comparison, he noted that state institutions such as schools and juvenile detention facilities are “virtually immune from these kinds of lawsuits,” even though incidents of sexual abuse of minors in public institutions is “much greater than that which occurred in the Catholic Church.”

In regard to Catholic schools, Bishop Lori lamented that the state of Connecticut fails to provide many basic forms of support to Catholic schools that the U.S. Supreme Court has found to be constitutional. As an example he cited the fact that the state also does not allow education majors, even those at Catholic universities, to work toward their certification by student-teaching in any private school.

In response to these challenges, the Bishop of Bridgeport urged the faithful in his diocese and other concerned Catholics to inform themselves about the issues at stake, and defend religious freedom on all possible fronts– from water-cooler conversations and family gatherings, to the White House and the Supreme Court.

To this end, he recommended several methods, including prayer for public officials, vigilant political participation through voting and contact with one's representatives, and the study and practice of Catholic social teaching. He urged Catholics to follow the work of local conferences –such as the Connecticut Catholic Public Affairs Conference– that speak for the bishops on matters of public policy.

“It is also important,” the bishop urged, “that good men and women – with skills, virtues, and values – run for public office.” While noting that the calling to political life was a difficult one, he also spoke of the possibility for candidates with integrity “to recoup the moral consensus” that America's founding fathers considered central to democracy.

“A great need exists, for those who understand how to bring the truths, virtues, and values that flow from faith and reason into public life,” he observed.

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