MINNEAPOLIS — It’s been a rough period for Church leaders in Minnesota, where voters approved the legalization of same-sex "marriage" in the state, despite a two-year Church-led campaign of education and prayer.
But Archbishop John Nienstedt of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis and other Minnesota bishops have not retreated from public engagement on the intertwined issues of life, marriage and religious freedom.
If anything, their sense of urgency has only intensified, with Catholic nonprofits facing an Aug. 1 deadline for compliance with the federal contraception mandate and the U.S. Supreme Court about to issue rulings on two landmark marriage cases that could directly impact the free exercise of Catholic institutions across the country.
As U.S. dioceses prepared for the 2013 "Fortnight for Freedom," June 21-July 4, the Minnesota Catholic Conference held a June 2-3 "First Freedom Academy" to educate and train priests on religious-liberty concerns and discussion points. And during the two-week fortnight, the archdiocese will host "First Freedom," an educational forum, Mass and Holy Hour led by Archbishop Nienstedt, and conduct a June 29-30 "Project Life and Liberty Postcard Campaign."
Jason Adkins, the executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, told the Register that Church leaders in the region "believe that religious liberty will be the principal issue in the public square."
"We need to raise awareness, and the best way to do that is through our priests," said Adkins. "Every bishop tapped two priests to come to the event and go back to their diocese and be a leader on this. We brought in national experts to help them understand the state of this issue, from constitutional questions to the ecclesiastical context."
Across the nation, Catholics and other Americans concerned about emerging threats to religious liberty will participate in a variety of spiritual, educational and advocacy programs.
Experts will review the reasons why Catholic colleges and hospitals refuse to comply with the federal contraception mandate and have filed suit against the federal government. The faithful will learn why for-profit business owners have filed their own lawsuits, and they will receive updates on state efforts to protect conscience rights.
Of equal importance, Catholics can expect presentations on two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court that could have dire consequences for religious nonprofits.
By the end of June, the high court is expected to issue its rulings on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage, for the purposes of federal law, as a union of one man and one woman, and Proposition 8, the California voter initiative that effectively barred same-sex "marriage" in the Golden State.
"We have religious-liberty concerns in the area of marriage. We are trying to educate people in the pews about the closing of foster care and adoption services in Illinois, Boston, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., because of the erosion of marriage," Hillary Byrnes, the staff attorney for the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, told the Register.
The fortnight will begin at the national level with a Mass June 21, the eve of the feast day of religious-freedom martyrs Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher. The Mass will be celebrated by Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore at the city’s historic Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. On July 4, the end of the two-week event will conclude with Mass celebrated by Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in our nation’s capital.
The bishops’ conference has encouraged dioceses to use the fortnight as an opportunity to refocus attention on the need to defend First Amendment rights amid increasingly aggressive efforts to push religious practice to the margins of society. Thus, while prayer and education are key elements of the fortnight, political action will also be addressed.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and state Catholic conferences have encouraged the establishment of religious-liberty caucuses across the nation. During the fortnight, legislators who have joined the caucuses will participate in educational forums and rallies at state capitols.
Jenny Kraska, the executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, has coordinated with local dioceses to use the fortnight as an opportunity to raise awareness among legislators and their constituents about the need to get "religious liberty and conscience exemptions into law."
Last year, said Kraska, the Colorado Catholic Conference failed once again to secure the passage of a religious-liberty protection bill similar to the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which requires a high standard for the government to override religious-liberty concerns, and then only in the least burdensome manner.
During the fortnight, Kraska will be speaking at Colorado parishes, and Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver will headline a "Prayer in the Square" rally at the Colorado State Capitol, where the faithful will gather to pray for religious freedom, and Catholic legislators will address the crowd.
Kraska said that the ongoing legal challenges to the HHS mandate have helped to focus Catholics’ attention, but she will also remind her audiences that there have been other attempts to force Catholic institutions to violate central moral precepts of Church teaching on life issues.
"Catholic hospitals in the state were pressured to perform abortion services and direct sterilization — or risk losing their licenses," she told the Register, while noting that the challenge had been successfully resisted.
In Kansas, fortnight activities will focus on prayer, Holy Hours and Masses dedicated to religious freedom.
Church leaders and activists in Kansas are still celebrating the passage of the Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act this spring.
But Michael Schuttloffel, executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference, told the Register that the legislative victory has not made him complaisant, and he hopes that Catholics will use the "Fortnight for Freedom" as an opportunity for prayer and reflection, building their appreciation for the gift of religious liberty and committing themselves to fight for the "first freedom" in the years ahead.
"Part of the problem is that the threats to religious freedom are not obvious to most people of faith because nobody is getting arrested for going to church," he said.
"But religious freedom is much more than the right to worship in a private setting; it’s the right to live one’s faith as a full participant in society — the right of Catholic Charities to run its ministry according to Catholic principles."
Noting the rapid and effective response of the National Rifle Association to perceived threats to gun rights, he said, "We don’t have an NRA for religious freedom yet. There is no infrastructure that allows us to ‘activate’ a large number of people."
Tim Schultz, the state legislative policy director for the American Religious Freedom Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank, aims to address that problem by promoting the establishment of more state religious caucuses and challenging misconceptions about the need for stronger First Amendment protections.
Activists also seek to counter efforts to characterize the movement supporting religious liberty as "narrowly sectarian" or "partisan," said Schultz.
At the same time, Catholics will use the fortnight to come together for Mass, prayer and Eucharistic adoration, seeking a last-minute reprieve from the government that will allow broad exemptions for religious plaintiffs in HHS mandate challenges.
Said the USCCB’s Hillary Byrnes, "The administration is expected to issue a final rule some time before Aug. 1, and it is still possible that it could decide to change the proposed rule in some respect."