On Religious Freedom, the Pope and the President Speak Different Languages

Pope Francis called conscientious objection a ‘human right’ on his flight back to Rome, on the same day that President Obama told an LGBT Democratic Party fundraiser that gay rights trump religious freedom.

Pope Francis is greeted by President Barack Obama upon his arrival on Sept. 22 at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington.
Pope Francis is greeted by President Barack Obama upon his arrival on Sept. 22 at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington. (photo: © L'Osservatore Romano)

WASHINGTON — The contrast could not have been more striking.

As he flew to Rome on Sunday, following his six-day visit to the United States, Pope Francis said conscientious objection is “a human right” when a reporter asked him for comment about religious liberty in the context of government officials, as in the case of Kim Davis, a county clerk in Kentucky who objects to issuing licenses for same-sex marriages.

“And, Holy Father, do you also support those individuals, including government officials, who say they cannot in good conscience, their own personal conscience, abide by some laws or discharge their duties as government officials, for example in issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples? Do you support those kinds of claims of religious liberty?” questioned ABC News correspondent Terry Moran.

“I can’t have in mind all cases that can exist about conscientious objection,” the Pope replied, a couple of days before Davis’ attorney announced that the Holy Father met Davis during a private audience in Washington. “But, yes, I can say conscientious objection is a right that is a part of every human right. It is a right. And if a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right.”

But while Pope Francis affirmed traditional marriage and conscience rights, President Barack Obama spoke Sunday at an LBGT Democratic Party fundraiser in New York and declared that religious freedom cannot be invoked to deny constitutional rights that include the rights of same-sex couples to civilly marry.

Obama mentioned the importance of accommodating “genuine concerns and interests” of religious institutions, but he also urged his listeners “to reject politicians who are supporting a new form of discrimination as a way to scare up votes,” adding: “That’s not how we move America forward.”

Questioned three days later about the Pope’s meeting with Davis, presidential spokesman Josh Earnest replied, “I don’t have a specific reaction to the meeting,” before doubling down on Obama’s comments to the LGBT Democratic Party donors.

“The president did note in his comments over the weekend that it’s important for Americans across the country to say clearly that our religious freedom doesn’t grant us the freedom to deny our fellow Americans their constitutional rights,” Earnest said.


‘Very Stark’ Differences

The Vatican subsequently clarified on Oct. 2 that the Pope’s meeting with Davis “should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects.”

But Davis’ attorney, Mat Staver, told the Register that the differences were “very stark” between what the Pope and president said about religious freedom as it pertains to the right to dissent to the redefinition of marriage.

“President Obama is throwing religious freedom out the window at the expense of same-sex marriage,” said Staver, the founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit legal organization dedicated to defending religious freedom, the sanctity of life and the family.

Also commenting on the “interesting juxtaposition” was Robert Destro, a law professor and founding director of the Interdisciplinary Program in Law and Religion at The Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law.

“President Obama’s understanding of what constitutional rights means is very typical for his side of the political spectrum,” Destro said. “It’s not just that you have a right to be free of discrimination, but people actively have to support your behavior and affirm it.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s June 26 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges may declare that same-sex couples have a right to marry civilly, but Destro said that does not mean they need someone like Davis, an Apostolic Christian, to sign their marriage licenses.

“As long as they can get their marriage licenses, their constitutional rights are affirmed,” Destro said.


Some Issues Sidestepped

Douglas Laycock, a leading authority on religious freedom at the University of Virginia School of Law, told the Register that while individual government officials such a Davis have conscience and religious liberty, governments do not.

“So Kim Davis does not have to issue marriage licenses herself, but Rowan County has to issue marriage licenses,” Laycock said. “Someone has to do it.”

Laycock also said that both Pope Francis’ and Obama’s statements “avoid the core of the issue.”

“So the Pope says she has a right to conscientious objection,” Laycock said. “He does not say that right includes a right to prevent others in her office from issuing licenses, or to insist that the licenses be amended to the point of mutilation. Her supporters will claim he supported her, but he didn’t address the critical distinction.

“Similarly with the president,” Laycock added. “Religious freedom does not include a right to deny others their constitutional rights. Hard to argue with that. But what did he mean by it? If Rowan County won’t issue marriage licenses, others are denied their constitutional rights. If Kim Davis won’t issue licenses personally and assigns the task to her deputy, no one’s constitutional rights are violated. Some of the president’s listeners probably think otherwise, but he, too, didn’t address the critical distinction.”

Bill May, founder and president of the Catholics for the Common Good Institute, told the Register that Pope Francis discussed a human right, conscientious objection, while Obama focused on a civil right, which May said are “two very different things.”

“Common to everyone is the right to not be coerced to do things that conflict with our religious beliefs or consciences,” May said. “On the other hand, same-sex couples have won a civil right to marry since the Supreme Court decided that marriage can no longer be considered as the institution that unites children with their mothers and fathers.”

Said May, “Ironically, the court’s decision violates the rights of children, who have a human right to be raised in a family with their mother and father united in marriage.”


Kim Davis’ Meeting With the Pope

May also said he thought it was “unfortunate” that Davis’ attorney, Staver, appeared to be “politicizing” the Pope’s meeting with Davis. May said the meeting “was no doubt a pastoral conversation on her human right to freedom from coercion on matters that conflict with faith and conscience, rather than support for her protest against same-sex couples marrying.”

Staver agreed the Pope Francis’ meeting with Davis had a pastoral dimension, adding that the Pope’s actions “always have that component.”

“But at the same time, I think he met with her to encourage her,” Staver said. “He said, ‘I thank you for your courage,’ and he also said, ‘Stay strong.’ He not only thanked her for her courage in the past, but he encouraged her to stay strong in what she was doing.”

Staver said Davis and her husband were personally invited to meet the Pope at the apostolic nunciature in Washington on Sept. 24.

“This was a private group meeting that would have required the Pope’s blessing,” said Staver, who told the Register that preliminary conversations about the meeting began 10 days earlier, though he declined to say who initiated those talks.

News of Davis’ private meeting with the Pope generated media headlines and angered homosexual-rights groups such as the Human Rights Campaign, which described the meeting as a “disappointing end to a historic trip.”

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, also said he left a message this week with Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, expressing his disappointment that the Pope did not meet with LGBT Catholics in the United States.


Punishment for Disagreeing?

Meanwhile, Destro of CUA noted that even though a Supreme Court majority has affirmed the civil rights of homosexuals to marry, the right to religious freedom has long been enshrined in the First Amendment.

“That’s why this whole idea that sexual freedom trumps religious freedom: I don’t even see why they’re in conflict,” Destro said, adding: “Unless you’re trying to get people who disagree with you to be punished for expressing their disagreement.”

Said Destro, “If that’s what we’re talking about, then we have a major problem on our hands.”

Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.