Thomas Farr is a visiting associate professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He directs the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs and the task force on international religious freedom for the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J. A former diplomat, Farr was the State Department’s first director of the Office of International Religious Freedom.

He is widely published in a variety of secular and religious publications, including Foreign Affairs, First Things, The New York Times and The Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy. His book, World of Faith and Freedom: Why International Religious Liberty Is Vital to American National Security, was published by Oxford University Press.

He spoke this week with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond.

Yesterday, a group of U.S. religious leaders — including Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Jews and Sikhs — released an “open letter,” “Marriage and Religious Freedom: Fundamental Goods That Stand or Fall Together.” Among other issues, the letter expressed alarm about the threat legal same-sex “marriage” poses to the free exercise of religion in this country.

This is a powerful statement. It is an encouraging and, frankly, very American phenomenon when religious groups with deep theological differences come together in defense of marriage and of religious freedom. The power of the statement comes from the truths it expresses. It sounds the alarm about the sweeping consequences for our society if the definition of marriage is overturned and about the threat to religious liberty implicit in such an act.

The letter itself is an example of religious liberty in action — public advocacy by religious actors on behalf of truths they hold sacred and which they believe central to protecting the common good.

There are those who would contend that this kind of public religious advocacy violates the separation of church and state. That reading of our Constitution is nonsense, but it exists, and it poses a danger both to marriage and religious freedom.

Consider Judge Vaughn Walker’s 2010 ruling on Proposition 8, the California referendum affirming marriage as between one man and one woman. He simply declared that the vote was in part motivated by religious and moral values, that those values did not and cannot meet constitutional standards of rationality, and that, therefore, the outcome of the referendum was unconstitutional.

Should this reasoning be more widely adopted by the courts, it would pose a severe threat to religious liberty by reducing the capacity of religious actors to prevail in democratic deliberation with religion-specific or even religiously derived moral arguments. It would implicate issues from marriage to abortion to the cloning of human beings for medical research.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Catholic bishops and advocates for religious freedom hailed the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling in the Hosanna Tabor case.

The ruling reaffirmed the right of religious communities to choose their own clergy without government interference and was a major victory. The fact that all the liberal justices went along with the decision is almost miraculous.

While the ruling was limited to the right to choose clergy, it did affirm the distinctive place of religion in the American system. In effect, the justices said that the First Amendment provides religious communities a degree of protection from government interference that almost no other community in our society has.

But the ruling did not directly address the issue I discussed earlier, i.e., the right of religious individuals and communities to make religious arguments and to prevail in democratic deliberation.

Where does that leave us?

When it comes to marriage, abortion or other issues of concern to Catholics, it leaves us in a precarious position. The remedy must be to engage with energy and optimism in public-policy debates, and to win.

Let me give you one example — among many — of the problem we face. The new health-care law may require Catholic associations like colleges and hospitals to provide contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs in their health-care plans. Catholics are, quite reasonably, fighting to broaden the conscience exemptions from that requirement (exemptions which now appear to apply only to churches themselves).

Conscience protections are important because they acknowledge, in principle, that protecting the conscience of the religious dissenter is more important than the law itself. But the conscience approach is, in my view, insufficient. Catholics need to marshal their resources more effectively to defeat these laws in the legislatures. We have not done this well, and we should ask ourselves why.

There are doubtless many reasons, including poor catechesis. But a key reason is that too many Catholics have bought into the false notion that it is illegitimate to make public religious arguments — i.e., that religion is a private matter.

Remember Mario Cuomo’s infamous “I am personally opposed to abortion” but refuse to “impose my views” on others? That view represents deep moral and legal confusion. Catholics have every right — indeed, I would argue they have the supreme responsibility — to enter the democratic public square, contend with the secularists and others, and prevail.

During the New Hampshire primary debate, Newt Gingrich noted that media questions focused on “gay rights” but ignored religious-liberty concerns. What is the state of play for religious freedom as an election-year issue?

This was during the ABC televised debate, and I was grateful to Newt for bringing it up. But his comment did not lead to a discussion of religious liberty.

On balance, there has been very little attention paid to the problem. I co-authored, with Open Doors, a religious-freedom pledge for presidential candidates , but only Rick Santorum has signed it.

Yes, people are justifiably concerned about the economy, but they should also be concerned about the growing threat to their religious liberty. It’s something that should have greater emphasis as the campaign moves on.

President Obama announced last month that U.S. foreign policy will make the promotion of “gay rights” a priority. Afterwards, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that “gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights.” What’s the likely impact of this new policy on our commitment to the defense of religious freedom abroad?

The president’s announcement primarily addresses the issue of violence against homosexuals — the kind of statement Catholics should be able to support. The Church teaches that homosexual persons “must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity” (Catechism, 2348).

Secretary Clinton’s speech, however, suggests a much broader agenda. Although she did not say it explicitly, it seems clear that the LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered] initiative will ultimately push for same-sex “marriage.” It may even encourage the criminalization of preaching against homosexual acts. Homilies by Catholic priests that reflect long-standing Catholic teaching — i.e., that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered” and “under no circumstances can they be approved” (Catechism, 2357) — could be construed as “hate speech.”

In fact, this administration has invested a great deal of energy and resources in preparing the ground work for their LGBT foreign-policy initiative. Not long after the inauguration, the State Department established a LGBT working group. Among other things, this group explored the possibility of including LGBT rights in the department’s “Annual Report on International Religious Freedom.”

How would they argue it as a religious-freedom issue?

I think they wanted to condemn — as an abuse of religious liberty — sermons that declared homosexual acts as sinful. But, of course, religious freedom protects the right to preach such sermons.

The administration appears to have concluded that an attempt to co-opt religious freedom in such a way would backfire. Not only would it turn the First Amendment on its head; it would also severely complicate the effort to advance religious freedom in Muslim-majority nations.

But the danger remains that the administration’s LGBT initiative will lead to pressure on countries to accept same-sex “marriage,” to legalize sodomy, to criminalize religious criticism of homosexual acts and to penalize those who resist.

In her LGBT speech, Secretary Clinton made a sweeping assertion that gay rights are human rights. If that means protecting the dignity of all persons, I’m all for it. But if it means asserting as fundamental the “right” of sexual liberation, and sweeping aside the moral compunctions of religious communities as bigoted and illegal, then this initiative is something about which all Catholics should be deeply concerned.

It is perhaps revealing that during the years the Obama administration was developing its LGBT initiative, it was permitting U.S. international religious-freedom policy to languish. It took two and one-half years to get its religious-freedom ambassador in place (a position required by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act). When our new ambassador [Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook] finally stepped into the job, she was buried deep in the bureaucracy, with little status and few resources.

Meanwhile, the administration was investing its time and money in what by its lights appears to be a far more important objective: advancing the cause of “gay liberation.”

Ultimately, Americans are going to have to choose what is more important to them, both domestically and in their foreign policy. As this debate takes place, Catholics should let their voices be heard. That is the meaning of religious freedom.