The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is kicking off its annual Fortnight for Freedom in Baltimore tomorrow in a celebratory mood. Every year, the bishops present this event as an effort to defend religious liberty. But we’ve seen over five years its real intent: to galvanize the Catholic hierarchy around an agenda to discriminate against and impose their beliefs on Catholics and non-Catholics alike. And their persistence has paid off, despite very little support or attention from everyday Catholics.
Why? Because they found a benefactor unlike any other. President Trump has rewarded the bishops handily for their loyalty during the elections. They’ve had some major wins, getting more of their wish list than they probably dreamed possible. On Day 1, President Trump dramatically reinstalled and expanded the “global gag rule” to deny funding to any organization abroad that speaks about, advocates for or refers patients to abortion services, including providers of HIV/AIDS assistance. A month ago, the president proposed lifting restrictions that prevent tax-exempt houses of worship from engaging in partisan political activity — allowing churches to whip up votes and create slush funds for politicians without consequences. Now the administration is considering sweeping exemptions for all corporations — public or private, religious or secular — to deny birth control coverage in their employee insurance based on religious or “moral” grounds.
In other words, the Catholic bishops and other religious arch-conservatives are getting their cake and eating it too. They’re taking your taxpayer money to provide community services and foreign assistance and are free to discriminate against people as they see fit.
Why should this matter to you?
It could be your family who pays the price now that President Trump has let the Catholic bishops and other extremist religious leaders dictate policy for everyone else. Perhaps your daughter wants to attend a highly rated program at a Catholic university. But now she has to think twice because she has to balance paying for her books with paying for birth control the school refuses to cover or administer on campus. Or maybe your sister will have to work overtime to pay for birth control after her employer sends a notice saying they’re “morally” opposed to covering it. It could be your brother who is denied the chance to adopt a child and give it a loving home because he is in a same-sex marriage. Or maybe your wife will be denied in vitro fertilization services at a Catholic hospital that just so happens to be the only hospital nearby.
We have already seen the impact of these policies on real people, including vulnerable populations like migrants and refugees. Young women like “Rosa” a 17-year-old migrant woman represented in an ACLU case who was raped on her journey to the United States. After becoming suicidal from her trauma, she was denied housing by Catholic Charities — which openly denies migrants family planning. She was eventually transferred to another facility and received an abortion.
Rachel Field was another young woman denied critical services. She ended up with a ruptured cyst after falling out of her birth control routine when a nurse refused to administer Depo Provera shots at a Fordham University health center.
Rosa and Rachel are simply two out of countless women and men who have had their own rights violated at the expense of the bishops and their misuse of religious liberty to discriminate.
They could be your family members. And now, sadly, there will be more Rosas and Rachels thanks to the gentleman’s agreement between the bishops and President Trump.
These policies run counter to the founding freedoms we hold dear as a country, which include not only the liberty to exercise your religion, but also the liberty to not have religion imposed upon you. And, not surprisingly, they’re out of sync with the majority of Catholics who aren’t lining up for the Fortnight. Seventy-four percent of Catholic voters oppose legislation allowing companies or organizations to use an owner’s religious beliefs to deny services to employees or customers. Around 71 percent of Catholic voters believe all women should have the same access to birth control coverage regardless of where they work.
So, let’s be clear: The so-called “religious liberty” agenda is being pushed by minority special interest groups, like the USCCB, that have the ear of the president at the expense of a majority who might find their lives disrupted. The bishops do not represent the majority of Catholics who believe in social justice and freedom for all. Their license to discriminate will hurt real people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. We must stand up and say this is wrong.
Jon O’Brien is president of Catholics for Choice (Twitter: @Catholic4Choice).