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Religious Freedom Week highlights issues for prayer, reflection and action

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This year, the Catholic Church marks Religious Freedom Week June 22-29. To help Catholics pray, reflect and act, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has prepared materials about current issues and challenges to religious freedom, in the United States and around the world.

lr rel-freedom wk logo“What’s really essential is to be able to make decisions that are consistent with our beliefs,” said Jeff F. Caruso, founding director of the Virginia Catholic Conference in Richmond, which tracks current state legislation and spearheads advocacy efforts.

“Engaging in the public square is an integral part of our life in Christ and our baptismal responsibility,” he said, adding that while the USCCB materials focus on national and international issues, “we’re seeing some of these same issues crop up at the state level.” 

Catholics are “called to make a difference for the common good,” Caruso said. “Whether it involves health plans or adoption and foster care, our beliefs and our services go together — they’re animated by the same faith. What we’re talking about is the freedom to serve consistent with our beliefs.”

Here’s an overview of issues the USCCB campaign is highlighting, along with details on related issues on the state level:

June 22: Freedom of conscience in health care
Religious orders that work in health care, such as the Little Sisters of the Poor, increasingly face issues of conscience when asked to participate in or provide insurance coverage for medical procedures that go against the teachings of the Catholic Church, from certain types of contraception and abortion-inducing drugs to sterilization and gender reassignment surgery. 

Caruso said a bill passed during the 2020 session of the Virginia General Assembly requires health plans to cover gender transition treatments and surgeries. Other bills introduced in the 2020 session would have required health plans to cover abortions, abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives, sterilizations and in vitro fertilization (IVF). They did not pass, but are expected to be reintroduced next year, he said. 

June 23: Freedom to worship without fear 
The USCCB calls the recent rise in violent attacks on houses of worship all over the world a threat to religious freedom.  The USCCB supports asking Congress to increase funding for the FEMA Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which provides grants to nonprofits, including houses of worship, to improve security.  

June 24: The Church in China, and rights of all religious minorities
Since 2013, religious persecution in China has intensified under a government campaign to have religions conform to government-sanctioned interpretations of Chinese culture. Up to 2 million ethnic Uighur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Hui Muslims have been detained in mass internment camps since 2017. Other religions are affected, including the estimated 12 million Catholics in China. While the Vatican has reached a provisional agreement with China on the issue of episcopal appointments, reports of government persecution persist. Solidarity with people of faith in other countries begins with learning about their struggles. The USCCB offers a monthly religious liberty newsletter, First Freedom News, to help keep Catholics informed.  
June 25: Freedom of conscience in adoption and foster care 
The opioid crisis has put a strain on the foster care system. Yet while more children are waiting to be placed in families, a growing number of cities will not work with faith-based agencies that refuse to place children in situations that violate the agencies’ religious beliefs, such as with same-sex couples or unmarried heterosexual couples. The USCCB supports the Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act, which would prohibit the federal government, and any state that receives certain federal funding, from discriminating against agencies on the basis that they decline to provide services that conflict with their religious beliefs.

A similar Virginia law, on the books since 2012, says child welfare agencies “cannot be forced to participate in placements that violate their beliefs,” Caruso said. An attempt to repeal it in the 2020 legislative session failed, “but we think it will be back in 2021.”
JUNE 26:  Freedom from government intrusion on the border 
The Catholic Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, has resisted efforts to construct a barrier wall on the southern U.S. border. The wall would run through land owned by the diocese, which will not cede it to the government. The diocese argues that freedom of religion means civil authorities cannot impede the church from its mission, which includes ministry to those fleeing violence and poverty. The diocese is defending its position with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a 1993 law passed with bipartisan support that protects against government intrusion. The law has been under attack; the USCCB urges Congress to continue to support it. 
JUNE 27:  Freedom for Catholic schools 
Education is central to the church’s mission, and Catholic schools have been significant anchor institutions in many neighborhoods, benefiting even those not enrolled in their schools. Catholic leaders have played a leading role in ensuring that all children have access to quality education. The USCCB says Catholic schools need the space to operate in accordance with Catholic convictions if they are to continue to be a source of vitality for our society.

JUNE 28: Peace and reconciliation in the Central African Republic
The Central African Republic is one of the poorest countries in the world. After a long civil war that led to attacks on unarmed Muslim and Christian civilians, Catholic Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga worked with Christian and Muslim groups to lead an interreligious movement to counter rising hatred and violence with peace and reconciliation. The USCCB and Catholic Relief Services helped launch the Central African Interfaith Peacebuilding Partnership, which supports programs to heal trauma, build peace, help citizens learn skills, and access loans to start farms and businesses. CRS also provides humanitarian aid to the thousands of wounded and displaced victims.

JUNE 29: Promoting a civil national dialogue 
A strong tradition of social teaching compels Catholics to be actively engaged in the building up of our communities and being involved in the political process. Yet today, many shy away from such involvement because political dialogue seems to be filled with harsh language and personal attacks. When a hostile atmosphere prevents honest debate, it only serves to further divide our communities. USCCB’s Civilize It campaign aims to help communities engage in more civil discourse. Go to civilizeit.org to take the pledge. 

Find out more
Bishop Michael F. Burbidge will celebrate a livestreamed Mass for Religious Liberty
June 22 at 12:05 p.m. Go to arlingtondiocese.org.

For the USCCB’s Religious Liberty page, go to usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/ 

For a statement by Bishop Michael F. Burbidge for Religious Freedom Week 2020: For the Good of All — Celebrate Religious Freedom, go here.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020