Why was Archbishop Lori's committee born?

Any discussion of when the U.S. Catholic bishops began to get more interested in religious liberty issues needs -- at the very least -- a flashback to March 10, 2006. That's when Catholic Charities of Boston did the unthinkable. To set the scene, here's the opening of the unusually even-handed (honest, check out the balancing of the brilliant sources on the moral left and right) "Banned in Boston" cover story at The Weekly Standard:

CATHOLIC CHARITIES OF BOSTON made the announcement on March 10: It was getting out of the adoption business. "We have encountered a dilemma we cannot resolve. ... The issue is adoption to same-sex couples."

It was shocking news. Catholic Charities of Boston, one of the nation's oldest adoption agencies, had long specialized in finding good homes for hard to place kids. "Catholic Charities was always at the top of the list," Paula Wisnewski, director of adoption for the Home for Little Wanderers, told the Boston Globe. "It's a shame because it is certainly going to mean that fewer children from foster care are going to find permanent homes." Marylou Sudders, president of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said simply, "This is a tragedy for kids."

How did this tragedy happen?

It's a complicated story.

There were plenty of other warning signs of the First Amendment conflicts to come, so much so that I began writing about them back in 2000 or so. I first heard about the potential for the events we are now seeing in a rather liberal (in the old sense of the word) church-state separation seminar back in 1977.

But the 2006 headlines in Boston provided the Catholic establishment with a major wake-up call. That's a fact, pure and simple.

If that is the case, then why is The Baltimore Sun publishing material about the city's new archbishop, on the eve of a major national conference on religious liberty, that includes fact paragraphs such as these? Please read carefully.

Archbishop William E. Lori, who was installed this month as the 16th archbishop of Baltimore, said he would discuss "the roots of our own nation's tradition of respect for religious freedom" -- including the roles of Marylanders John Carroll, the first archbishop of Baltimore, and his cousin Charles Carroll, the only Roman Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Lori chairs the committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that was created to challenge new rules written by the Department of Health and Human Services that require employers -- including Catholic schools, hospitals and charities -- to give workers access to insurance that covers birth control.

So the editorial team at the Sun believes that this committee was formed in response to the HHS rules, which, once again, moves its work into the context of a political showdown with the Obama White House. The birth of the committee had nothing to do with a decade or more of sobering events linked to military chaplains, campus religious groups, religious charities, the rights of religious counselors, etc., etc.

Please note that I am not saying that the looming HHS rules crisis played no role in this committee's formation. What I am saying is that the Sun fact statement that it was "was created to challenge new rules written by the Department of Health and Human Services" is ridiculously shallow, if not totally inaccurate.

As for the bishops, at the time of the committee's birth they did offer a short list of some of the issues that inspired this action. Yes, the list begins with the hot issue that was beginning to creep into the headlines -- the looming HHS rules showdown. However the list also included the following:

* The Justice Department’s attack on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), presenting DOMA’s support for traditional marriage as bigotry. In July, the Department started filing briefs actively attacking DOMA’s constitutionality, claiming that supporters of the law could only have been motivated by bias and prejudice. “If the label of “bigot” sticks to us -- especially in court -- because of our teaching on marriage, we’ll have church-state conflicts for years to come as a result,” Archbishop Dolan said.

* The Justice Department’s recent attack on the critically important “ministerial exception,” a constitutional doctrine accepted by every court of appeals in the country that leaves to churches (not government) the power to make employment decisions concerning persons working in a ministerial capacity. In a case to be heard this term in the U.S. Supreme Court, the Department attacked the very existence of the exception.

* New York State’s new law redefining marriage, with only a very narrow religious exemption. Already, county clerks face legal action for refusing to participate in same-sex unions, and gay rights advocates are publicly emphasizing how little religious freedom protection people and groups will enjoy under the new law.

Once again, I am not saying that the press needs to downplay the HHS rules in its coverage and frame news coverage in terms of the religious-liberty concerns, alone. What I am saying is that this Sun story includes an inaccurate timeline, which then leads to an unattributed statement of fact that is simply wrong. In journalism, that's bad.

It would have been very easy for the Sun team to have included a single sentence that said the committee was formed after a decade or more of rising concerns among the bishops after events such as X, Y and Z. Anyone who has followed events in meetings of the U.S. bishops knows that this is the case. The timeline must start in 2006 or even earlier.

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