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Fritz Feds

Friday, April 02, 2004

Why is the left trying to revoke the core free speech rights of the Catholic Church?

I am not a Catholic, but I do tend to agree with the Catholic Church on hot-button social issues, so I guess you can take this however you would like, but it mystifies me when "tolerant liberals" have no problem openly advocating using the government to punish political speech they disagree with. Lefty uber-blogger Atrios advocated revoking the Catholic Church's tax exempt status for "align[ing] themselves with a political party" (or, apparently, the wrong political party). The story that got Atrios advocating chilling Catholic political speech was the decision by a group of Catholic bishops to distance themselves from (i.e. fire) an employee who was supporting a "Catholic" presidential candidate who unequivocally supports the continued legality of a procedure that the Catholic Church considers deeply immoral.

Then Wednesday, Boston Globe columnist Eileen McNamara jumped on the "get the Catholics out of politics" bandwagon. What has set Ms. McNamara off? Apparently it is a strong condemnation of gay marriage by Catholic officials in Boston combined with a non-partisan voter registration drive by the Church.

Here's how Ms. McNamara starts:

Having rejected Governor Mitt Romney's request that he launch a desperate, last-ditch bid to thwart the implementation of the Supreme Judicial Court's gay marriage ruling, Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly ought to turn his legal attention to revoking the tax-exempt status of the Catholic Church.

Spare Catholic Charities, the parochial schools, and the social service providers who truly embody the religious mission of the church, but pull the ticket on the corporate entity that would turn Holy Cross Cathedral into a precinct hall and the Sunday liturgy into a political rally.

If the four Massachusetts bishops want to fashion themselves ward bosses, let them pay to play, like any other taxpayer.

Why, exactly, is it that Ms. McNamara only targets the Catholic Church for this treatment? Why doesn't she go after this church where John Kerry preached, the church run by this woman who believes that some abortions are willed by God, or the PCUSA, who allowed the director of their Washington office, to publicly condemn the Federal Marriage Amendment? All of these people are playing politics too, but they are taking positions that are not as objectionable to Ms. McNamara as the Catholic Church's position that marriage should not be fundamentally redefined.

Earlier this month, Boston Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley wrote in The Pilot, the house organ of the Boston Archdiocese, that the divisive gay marriage debate "demands unity in our opposition but charity in the way the debate is conducted." How does he square that with the scare tactics directed at parishioners from the pulpit and the threats directed at lawmakers?

Ms. McNamara doesn't tell us what these "scare tactics" are, exactly. I presume they are something akin to telling parishioners and lawmakers that the Church would rather not associate themselves with people who call themselves Catholic but disagree with the Catholic Church on fundamental issues of faith. Apparently the rights of the Catholic Church to freely exercise their faith when it comes to those fundamental issues must give way to Ms. McNamara's political desires.

"Doubtless many Catholics who are homosexual or have friends and relatives who are homosexual find the present climate of debate on same-sex marriages very distressing," O'Malley wrote. "We need to assure them that we disagree with the way the debate is being framed to exploit people's emotions." How does O'Malley square that with the decision of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the church's well-financed lobbying arm, to distribute a videotape to parishes that, among other poisonous claims, contends that the poor and the elderly will suffer if same-sex couples are not denied their constitutional right to marry?

No one disputes the right of the Catholic Church, or any other religious institution, to be heard on the contentious issues of the day, but the bishops of Massachusetts want to rewrite the state constitution to conform to Catholic teachings. To assert that right, they persist in confusing sacramental marriage, which the SJC ruling leaves in their hands, with civil marriage, which is beyond their realm.

So, let me get this straight. Religious institutions are free to "be heard on the contentious issues of the day" as long as they are not trying to amend the state constitution to prevent the judicial redefinition of marriage? Why is this one issue different from every other issue? Ms. McNamara makes no attempt to explain this distinction, except to say that they are confusing sacramental marriage with civil marriage which is supposedly "beyond their realm." Except Ms. McNamara just said it was okay for them to be heard on the issues of the day. Why is civil marriage different from the other issues of the day? Well, it's because the Catholic Church is taking a position on civil marriage that she would rather not have in the marketplace of ideas.

Additionally, Ms. McNamara herself refutes her argument that the Catholic Church cannot tell the difference between sacramental marriage and civil marriage when she points to the videotape that is being distributed to parishes that contains such "poisonous claims" as the argument that a fundamental redefinition of marriage will have harmful societal effects that could harm the poor and the elderly. This is precisely the type of secular argument that this civil/sacramental distinction in the marriage debate is supposed to be asking for.

And no Catholic hit piece would be complete without quoting someone who calls themselves a Catholic but who doesn't seem to be Catholic in any meaningful, recognizable way.

It was a Catholic legislator who spoke most powerfully to the danger of bending the constitution to the will of religious institutions. "Constitutional rights run to individuals, not to groups or organizations or institutions," Senator Marian Walsh told her colleagues. "So today I ask, what constitutional rights would individuals participating in religious activities like to give up? Would individuals who worship surrender their own religion, and enjoy a state religion? Would individuals who are clergy like to give up the authority to perform civil marriage ceremonies that this Legislature gave them in 1692?"

Perhaps this quote makes some sense in the context of Sen. Walsh's statements. I would suggest that individuals who worship would rather not surrender their own religion and enjoy a state religion, and individuals who are clergy would not like to give up the authority to perform civil marriage ceremonies. I would also suggest that there is just about exactly zero connection between those two "proposals" and the attempts to counter the judicial redefinition of marriage that is coming in Massachussetts.

Article I of the Massachusetts Constitution speaks to the "equality of people and natural rights," the West Roxbury Democrat noted. "It doesn't say that, `All people are born free and equal and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights, except gays and lesbians.' Do we want to make that change? Do we want our compact with [one] another to say that some of us are not equal?"

By a narrow margin, the Legislature took one step in that direction. Reilly could take the Commonwealth a step the other way by insisting that one of the most powerful players in this debate stop dressing up its bare-knuckle politics in clerical garb.

So, despite Ms. McNamara's claim that religious organizations are free to speak on political issues of the day, what this debate is about is really whether people of faith like Archbishop O'Malley will be allowed to have a place at the political table. This is really just another version of the silly liberal trope about not imposing your religion on others.

Eugene Volokh had a pretty insightful post on this issue about 3 weeks ago.

[T]hat's what most lawmaking is -- trying to turn one's opinions on moral or pragmatic subjects into law.

Gay rights activists are trying to force their opinions on us by making employers not discriminate based on sexual orientation, or by making taxpayers pay for various marriage-related benefits for same-sex couples as well as heterosexual couples. Civil rights activists forced their opinions about race and sex discrimination on private employers, landlords, and business owners.

Nor are libertarians immune, unless they're anarchists (though even the anarchists are willing to force their opinions through the use of deadly force, even if not through legislation). After all, laws against breach of contract, theft, rape, murder, and the like also involve the defenders of those laws forcing their opinions on the rest of us.

Ah, the argument goes, but those laws are backed by secular arguments, not religious ones. Well, as it happens, many laws -- civil rights laws, for instance -- were motivated by religious opinions (it's the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., you might recall). But more importantly, all of our opinions are ultimately based on unproven and unprovable moral premises. For some of us, the moral premises are secular; for others, they're religious; I don't see why the former are somehow more acceptable than the latter.

So the problem Ms. McNamara has with the Catholic Church is that they start from different moral premises than she does, and she is trying to rig the game by declaring that her moral premises are the only legitimate ones. And she should stop dressing up her "bare knuckle politics" in constitutional garb.


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