Denver archbishop critiques assumptions behind social services bill as "enormously offensive"

Denver archbishop critiques assumptions behind social services bill as "enormously offensive"


Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver is speaking out even more forcefully against House Bill 1080. In a submission to the journal “First Things,” he critiques the legislation for unreasonably assuming that “religious organizations will compromise the public good if they remain true to their religious identity while serving the poor with public funds.”


According to Archbishop Chaput, HB 1080 is being “pushed by the Anti-Defamation League after failing in a similar attempt last year” and “presents itself as an effort to bar discrimination.”


And yet, the bill does not target discrimination, Chaput writes. Rather, he says that what the bill singles out “is actually the legitimate freedom of religiously affiliated non-profits to hire employees of like faith to carry out their mission. In practice, HB 1080 would strike down the freedom of Catholic Charities to preferentially hire Catholics for its leadership jobs if it takes state funds.”


This hiring preference is essential for maintaining the Catholic identity of Catholic Charities and only involves a small number of the approximately 600 jobs at the organization, he related.


Even if the bill does become law, Chaput told “First Things” that he would not completely close down Catholic Charities. “Catholic Charities can always decline public funds and continue its core mission with private money.  In the Archdiocese of Denver, we’re ready to do exactly that.” 


Not content to leave the discussion of a bill at a cursory level, Chaput delved into the implications of the thinking behind HB 1080.


“Bills like HB 1080,” the archbishop wrote, “proceed from the assumption that public money, in passing through religious agencies to the poor, somehow miraculously commingles Church and state and violates the Constitution’s establishment clause.”


Archbishop Chaput found this view “peculiar on at least two levels.”


“First, accepting public money to perform a government-desired service does not make a private agency part of the government.  Nor does it transform the government into a catechism class.  But insofar as any ‘debt’ exists in a government and religious agency relationship, it’s the government that owes the service provider, not the other way around.  Obviously if the government wants to carry the social burden it currently asks religious-affiliated groups to carry, that’s the government’s business -- and so are the costs and problems that go along with it,” Chaput stated. 


He continued, emphasizing that since “religious groups do help bear the burden, often at a financial loss to themselves, then they can reasonably insist on the right to protect their own mission.” 


“The second and more dangerous problem with bills like HB 1080 is that they aggressively advance a secularist interpretation of the ‘separation of Church and state,’” the archbishop explained.


“Whether they do it consciously or not, groups like the Anti-Defamation League seem to argue from the presumption that any public money passing through religious agency hands is somehow rendered ‘baptized’ and therefore unable to serve the common good,” he said. 


Chaput wrote that he finds this to be “enormously offensive to religious believers” and also “alien to American history”.


“It's unreasonable -- in fact, it shows a peculiar hostility toward religion -- to claim that religious organizations will compromise the public good if they remain true to their religious identity while serving the poor with public funds. That's just a new form of prejudice using the ‘separation of Church and state’ as an alibi,” Denver’s archbishop insisted.  


Archbishop Chaput closed his letter by reflecting on the introduction of similar legislation across the country and the security of the place of Catholicism in the American public square.


“The lesson here for American Catholics is this.  For more than 40 years we’ve worked to integrate, accommodate and assimilate to American society in the belief that a truly diverse public square would have room for authentically Catholic life and faith.  We need to revisit that assumption.  It turns out that nobody gets anything for free.  If we want to influence, or even have room to breathe in the American environment of coming generations, we’ll need to work for it and fight for it – always in a spirit of justice and charity; but also vigorously and without apology.  Anyone who still has an easy confidence about the Catholic “place” in American life had better wake up,” he wrote.

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