National Catholic Register


San Francisco Squares Off Against the Church. Are You Watching?

BY Gerald J. Russello

December 5-18, 2010 Issue | Posted 11/29/10 at 2:56 PM


Bigotry remains the law of the land in California and all along the West Coast.

In a remarkable decision, a federal appellate court let stand as constitutionally protected a declaration of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors that is emblematic of the anti-Catholicism of old. The decision, unfortunately, is only too predictable. Catholics and other people of faith should pay close attention to these cases. Their frightening implications are all too clear.

Beginning in around 2003, the Archdiocese of San Francisco, like many other Catholic social-services agencies, was wrestling with the problem of how to fulfill its Gospel mandate to care for the vulnerable while a secular state was aggressively intruding on the Church’s autonomy. In this instance, Caesar was the City of San Francisco, which encouraged all adoption agencies to consider placing children with same-sex couples.

The Church determined it could do no such thing, and the archdiocese was specifically instructed in 2006 by Cardinal William Levada, in his capacity as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, that it could not do so. So far, this case was similar to the high-profile case in which Catholic Charities in Boston was driven out of the adoption business by a similar demand from secular authorities.

But then, in San Fran, a remarkable thing happened — something that pulled the curtain back on all the talk of rights and equality, revealing the true motivations of those behind this attack on the Church. The board issued a declaration on the issue that is breathtaking in its hatred for Catholic Americans. It drew upon the deep well of anti-Catholicism that aggressive secularists (and some well-meaning but misguided Catholics) insist is a thing of the past.

The board’s resolution needs to be read in full to be believed, but, in part, it urged the archbishop of San Francisco and the archdiocesan social-services agencies to defy Cardinal Levada’s directive as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Further, the resolution directed “Cardinal William Levada, in his capacity as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican, to withdraw his discriminatory and defamatory directive that Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of San Francisco stop placing children in need of adoption with homosexual households.”

The resolution further condemned the Vatican as an “a foreign country” that meddled with the city’s policy, and finally castigated the Church for “hateful and discriminatory rhetoric [that] is both insulting and callous, and shows a level of insensitivity and ignorance.”

Several Catholics in San Francisco sued, arguing that the declaration was tantamount to excluding them from public life and that it singled out the Catholic faith for special attack. The lower federal court ruled on a technicality that the plaintiffs could not bring the suit. A three-judge appellate panel initially affirmed based on the same reason. Neither decision found that the plaintiffs had what is called “standing,” or the right to bring a case. The court then voted to rehear the case before a larger panel of federal judges called an en banc panel.

The majority of judges determined that the plaintiffs did not have a case. Five judges thought the plaintiffs had not been injured sufficiently enough by the declaration’s statement to have grounds to sue. Three of them found that elected representatives can denounce religious faith and particular religions by name, slandering and diminishing the role of people of that faith in public life, without fear of legal retribution.

These judges simply ignored case law that has long stated, quite clearly, that freedom of religion under the First Amendment means that the government can favor no one religion over another or nonreligion over religion in general. The San Francisco Board was clear in its denunciation of the Catholic faith as a religion, and revived the old canard of Catholics having dual loyalties to a foreign power for good measure. Yet, somehow, the judges found that the board’s bigoted commentary on the Church reflected “secular issues” only, and did not touch on any specific religious doctrine, which is the only attack these judges would find unacceptable.

The dissenters noted, in seeming astonishment, that they could not identify any prior case “brought by people whose religion was directly condemned by the government.”

These judges are following a path that is becoming more and more popular to walk. In this view, religion should be seen and not heard — free to engage in harmless rituals but otherwise severely constrained in public presence or physical conduct. Taken to its logical end, this proposition represents a fundamental hostility toward religious life, especially as understood by Christians.

California already forces Catholic hospitals to provide insurance for employees that includes contraceptives, violating their religious principles. Now government officials can condemn them from an official podium.

Catholics need to realize that the age when Catholics could get along with a neutral secular state is swiftly ending. A new accommodation needs to be reached — one that permits free exercise of religion while also acknowledging that ours is a secular society.

Gerald J. Russello is a fellow of the Chesterton Institute at Seton Hall University.