Archbishop Lori: ‘Defending Religious Freedom Is a Moving Target’

In an interview with the Register, the U.S. bishops’ point man on religious liberty discusses how to address the rapidly changing national landscape for this issue.

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore
Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore (photo: Facebbok/Archbishop William Lori)

BALTIMORE — During Holy Week, Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), only just signed into law by Gov. Mike Pence, was attacked by a host of critics across the country. The furor forced Pence to agree to an amended bill that some say badly weakened the protections provided in the original legislation.

Indiana’s RFRA battle is now a wake-up call for Americans who support religious freedom, but in an interview with the Register, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, the U.S. bishops’ point man on religious freedom, acknowledged that the furor in Indiana was not a “surprise.”

Indeed, Archbishop Lori noted that growing opposition to state RFRAs is not the only free-exercise issue of concern to Catholics. On April 28, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges and three other cases that could result in a ruling that effectively legalizes same-sex “marriage” across the land. In a brief filed before the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops joined with other religious leaders to assert “that the traditional institution of marriage is indispensable to the welfare of the American family and society. We are also united in our belief that a decision requiring the states to license or recognize same-sex ‘marriage’ would generate church-state conflicts that will imperil vital religious liberties.”

Meanwhile, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., the president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, told the Register that the bishops will discuss how they can better present their message about religious freedom, marriage and other issues at their upcoming meeting in June. Archbishop Kurtz also expressed his hope that Church leaders can use public excitement regarding Pope Francis’ September visit to the United States as an opportunity to present Catholic teaching on difficult issues with clarity, civility and passion.

On April 8, Archbishop Lori spoke with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond about the fast-moving debate on religious freedom.


What are the lessons to be learned from Indiana?

First, it is important to stay ahead of the discussion. We need to be very clear about what these state RFRAs do and don’t do and how compatible they are with the federal RFRA.

In the main, RFRA laws benefit minority religions and have never been used for the type of discrimination that was described in the protests.


Were you surprised by the scope and power of the protests?

I wasn’t surprised, because we saw it last year in Arizona [when the state RFRA was not passed, following national protests].


What should be in place before religious-freedom legislation is proposed?

You can never be too prepared on an issue like that. You must not only be prepared for the kind of organized opposition that these bills seem to generate, but to have a language with which to speak about it.

You need to demonstrate that the RFRAs don’t give anyone a license to discriminate against persons. It only gives them their day in court, and so it addresses the danger of discriminating against people who have deeply held moral convictions. Discrimination can be a two-way street, and the same measuring stick ought to be applied to [those who seek to protect their conscience rights as well as those who defend their right to services without discrimination].


The lopsided debate on the Indiana RFRA shows that a strong, proactive communications strategy is key. Can the U.S. bishops’ conference help local dioceses and state conferences with this?

It is important that we understand how social media works and how it can give an appearance of greater opposition [to a law we support] than actually exists.

I am also certain we are outspent, and our resources often can’t compare with [our opponents’] campaigns. I don’t say this to criticize Indiana or any state.

The USCCB would offer help as requested, on a state-by-state basis. There is an abundance of resources available on the USCCB website.


One challenge for supporters of religious freedom is that they often approach the issue from natural-law principles and are more comfortable with reasoned discourse. But U.S. politics increasingly focuses on emotional arguments. What’s the solution?

It is very important to reach the head and heart. Most recently, we learned that in Maryland, when we were trying to defeat legislation to legalize assisted suicide.

We see how the Holy Father communicates. He has a knack for choosing an image that really conveys what he wants to say. He has a way of taking the truth of the faith and making it very accessible. People say, “Yes, I get that.” There is that catechetical mastery.

Oftentimes, it is people bearing witness that makes the difference. When someone is bearing courageous witness and is also articulate about issues, it is very powerful.

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of teaching on these issues all the time — especially when it is not a crisis moment.


The next big challenge for religious freedom will arrive when and if the U.S. Supreme Court issues a ruling that effectively legalizes same-sex “marriage.” What are your thoughts?

Defending religious freedom has turned out to be a moving target. We have been stretched to go from one issue to the next, whether it’s the Health and Human Services’ mandate or the new challenges posed by opponents of RFRA laws or the massive challenge that will come with same-sex “marriage.”

We are working hard, with the approach of the 2015 Fortnight for Freedom, to put the kinds of tools we have developed in the hands of bishops, pastors, DREs [directors of religious education] and people interested in defending their faith.


Some Catholics ask whether Pope Francis’ message about reaching out to the “fringes” has led some Catholic leaders to downplay sensitive issues like same-sex “marriage” or religious freedom.

We have to pay close attention to what Pope Francis says. He constantly and clearly speaks about marriage and religious persecution.

It is important that we link the witness of those who are being persecuted to our effort to defend religious liberty at home. It is not a one-way street; it’s a two-way street. Their witness should help us understand the great treasure we have. We ought to defend our freedom as an act of solidarity with those who are being persecuted.

He gives us the tools to do this, not only in what he says about persecution in the Middle East and Africa, but in his talk to the European Parliament, when he spoke about [the connection between] religious freedom and democracy.

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