Attention editors: Concerning a seriously neglected church-state drama in the District of Columbia

An important church-state story in the nation’s capital has largely been ignored in the news media except for an op-ed and online articles from the conservative Catholics at the Cardinal Newman Society.

On Dec. 2, the District of Columbia Council unanimously amended the city's Human Rights Act in order to end exemptions that aided religions opposed to same-sex relationships.

That's big news. Then on Dec. 17 the  Council unanimously amended that same act to forbid discrimination against employees’ “reproductive health decisions” to choose abortion, sterilization and contraception.

The D.C. votes create conscience-clause problems -- especially for those associated with Washington’s Catholic school system and for the Catholic University of America. The university’s unique status turns this from a mere local fuss into a nationally significant challenge to the institution of the Catholic Church.

Why is that? Chartered by the pope in 1889, it operates schools of theology and canon law along with secular subjects. Its chancellor is local Cardinal Donald Wuerl, and the governing board consists of five cardinals, nine archbishops, nine bishops, two priests and one sister, along with 19 Catholic laymen and laywomen.

At this writing, new Mayor Muriel Bowser hasn’t decided whether to sustain or veto these two measures. If she approves them, the U.S. Congress could restore the previous exemptions, and the new Republican majorities in both houses appear likely to.

You know what that means, of course. If so, that would land such bills on the desk of President Barack Obama, whose Democratic Party depends on votes and money from secularists, cultural liberals, the religious left and the gay-rights movement, and whose administration has sought to oppose many previous religious-liberty claims.

Let’s say after the process plays out the church wins protection under the U.S. Constitution’s clause  against government actions “prohibiting the free exercise” of religious faith. Does that end the drama?

Not really. The D.C. Council’s decisions are similar to initiatives elsewhere in a U.S. culture war that will grind away over the next decade or two.

Beyond the news basics, in-depth coverage could ask other the leaders of other religious groups -- left and right -- whether they support the Catholic religious liberty claims. If not, where would they draw the line against government demands that violate specific and longstanding religious tenets? Look for this: What happened to the powerful and very broad church-state coalition that existed during the Clinton White House era?

The current disputes usually involve the nation’s two dominant religious communities, the Catholic Church and conservative–evangelical Protestantism. However, the modern gay-rights claims equally confront Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Mormonism and Orthodox Judaism. Abortion, if not contraception funding, upsets many.  

When can the state shape doctrine and the lives of believers who are trying, in voluntary associations, to follow the tenets of their faith? In far-fetched parallels to the D.C. feud, should politicians be free to mandate that Adventist schools operate on Saturdays, that Sikh schools forbid carrying of ceremonial daggers, or that Quaker or Mennonite or Buddhist schools provide military training?

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