The politics of religious liberty

As U.S. Catholic bishops met in Baltimore this week, this was the headline from the National Catholic Reporter:

Bishop says religious freedom under attack in America

The Associated Press' coverage of the meeting carried a similar headline:

Bishops say government eroding religious liberty

But this was the headline from The New York Times:

Bishops Open 'Religious Liberty' Drive

Notice the subtle (or perhaps not-so-subtle) difference? As the National Catholic Reporter and AP framed the news, the bishops voiced concerns about religious liberty. As presented by the Times, however, the bishops took a calculated political stand.

The top of the Times report:

BALTIMORE — The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops opened a new front in their fight against abortion and same-sex marriage on Monday, recasting their opposition as a struggle for “religious liberty” against a government and a culture that are infringing on the church’s rights.

The bishops have expressed increasing exasperation as more states have legalized same-sex marriage, and the Justice Department has refused to go to bat for the Defense of Marriage Act, legislation that established the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman.

“We see in our culture a drive to neuter religion,” Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, president of the bishops conference, said in a news conference Monday at the bishops’ annual meeting in Baltimore. He added that “well-financed, well-oiled sectors” were trying “to push religion back into the sacristy.”

A reader who submitted the link to the Times story commented:

It's not bad, but it seems a bit skewed to me in its language. Writing that the bishop's concern about religious liberty is a way of repackaging their concerns over abortion and gay marriage seems to imply their concerns are not genuine.

That was my reaction, too. I'd love to know what other GetReligion readers think (not about the issue itself, needless to say, but about the story angle chosen). Does the Times story push aside the religious liberty concerns in an effort to frame the bishops' concern as a purely political maneuver? Are there other factors at play?

The Times ends its report by quoting a "liberal" advocate who questions the bishops' concern for the poor:

Some liberal Catholic commentators have criticized the bishops’ priorities, saying they are playing into the culture wars. John Gehring, Catholic outreach coordinator with Faith in Public Life, a liberal religious advocacy group in Washington, said, “The bishops speak in hushed tones when it comes to poverty and economic justice issues, and use a big megaphone when it comes to abortion and religious liberty issues.”

Interestingly, an address by Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., at the bishops' meeting included this section:

In the dioceses that we serve, the Church is the largest non-governmental source of educational, social, charitable, and healthcare services, offered as an integral part of our mission, offered as an expression of our faith in the God who is love. In a time of economic hardship, the services which the Catholic Church and other denominations offer are not only beneficial but indeed crucial, but it is becoming more and more difficult for us to deliver services in a manner that truly respects the very faith that impels us to provide them.

In other (related) news, the Chicago Tribune reported on three Illinois dioceses deciding to end state-subsidized foster-care services rather than work with same-sex parents in civil unions. From that story:

Springfield Bishop Thomas Paprocki said the decision to drop the lawsuit enabled the central Illinois diocese to redirect its energies toward serving the poor instead of a protracted legal battle.

"The silver lining of this decision is that our Catholic Charities going forward will be able to focus on being more Catholic and more charitable, while less dependent on government funding and less encumbered by intrusive state policies," Paprocki said.

Since March, state officials have been investigating whether religious agencies that receive public funds to license foster care parents were breaking anti-discrimination laws if they turned away openly gay parents.

Is there a possibility that the bishops' concern for religious liberty has a direct tie to the poverty issue — a chance, in other words, that a "conservative" advocate could argue that speaking about religious freedom is using a big megaphone on behalf of the poor? I would love to have seen the other side explored.

Again, I'd welcome opposing viewpoints from GR readers, but it strikes me that the Times story misses the full picture in its eagerness to frame the bishops' concern as purely political and tied primarily to the fight over other hot-button issues.

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