Same-sex marriage

Triumphant day for the Episcopal Church establishment

When Bishop William White of Philadelphia became a bishop in 1787, he was number two in the Episcopal Church's chain of apostolic succession.

When Bishop V. Gene Robinson was consecrated in 2003 -- the first openly gay, noncelibate Episcopal bishop -- he was number 993. This fact was more than a trivia-game answer during a recent sermon that represented a triumphant moment both for Robinson and his church's liberal establishment.

Standing on White's grave before the altar of historic Christ Church, the former New Hampshire bishop quipped that he did "feel a little rumble" when he referenced the recent Episcopal votes to approve same-sex marriage rites. But Robinson was convinced White was not rolling over in his grave.

"I'd like to think that he who took the really astounding events of his day and turned them into a prophetic ministry would be joining us here today if he could," said the 68-year-old bishop, in an interfaith service marking the 50th anniversary of the July 4th Independence Hall demonstrations that opened America's gay-rights movement.

After a "week of blessings" -- the Supreme Court win for same-sex marriage, as well as the long-awaited shift by Episcopalians -- Robinson said it was now time to seek global change. It's crucial to prove there is more to this cause than "white gay men" struggling to decide "where to have brunch on Sunday," he said.

Robinson had a very personal reason to celebrate. During General Convention meetings in Salt Lake City, Episcopal bishops, clergy and lay leaders approved rites for same-sex couples seeking to be married in church. The convention also edited gender-neutral language into its marriage laws, substituting "couple" for "man and woman."

Campolo, Neff signal that an open doctrinal left is emerging in evangelicalism

One moment defined old-school evangelicalism more than any other -- the altar-call ritual in which the Rev. Billy Graham urged sinners to come forward and repent, accept God's forgiveness and be born again. 

For decades, crusade choirs sang "Just As I Am," which proclaims: "Just as I am, and waiting not to rid my soul of one dark blot, to thee, whose blood can cleanse each spot, O Lamb of God, I come, I come." 

So evangelical activist Tony Campolo knew he was grabbing heartstrings as he referenced this gospel hymn when announcing that he had changed his beliefs on marriage and homosexuality. 

"As a social scientist, I have concluded that sexual orientation is almost never a choice," said the 80-year-old Campolo, for decades an influential voice on Christian campuses. "As a Christian, my responsibility is not to condemn or reject gay people, but rather to love and embrace them, and to endeavor to draw them into the fellowship of the Church. 

"When we sing the old invitation hymn, 'Just As I Am,' I want us to mean it." 

With this nod, Campolo underlined crucial questions in heated debates linked to the emerging evangelical left: Since the movement called "evangelicalism" lacks a common structure and hierarchy, who decides what the Bible says about repentance and forgiveness? Who decides when acts cease being sinful and become blessed?  

Guess the winner: Woodstock vs. religious liberty

Blame it on Woodstock.

Cultural changes unleashed by the sexual revolution are affecting how millions of Americans understand religious liberty, according to University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock, speaking at a recent Newseum symposium marking the 20th anniversary of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It doesn't help that disputes about the free exercise of religion have increasingly turned into bitter partisan battles pitting Republicans against the majority of mainstream Democrats.

What is happening? It helps to remember that churches were on the winning side of the American Revolution, he stressed, and that fact has shaped America ever since.

"What if we had a new revolution in our time? The sexual revolution that began in earnest in the '60s carries on with the current front about same-sex marriage" and contraception, said Laycock.

Religious groups have consistently "been on the losing side of this revolution. … In each of the remaining sexual issues -- abortion, same-sex marriage, contraception, sterilization, emergency contraception -- every one of those issues has this fundamental structure: What one side views as a grave evil, the other side views as a fundamental human right. ... And for tens of millions of Americans, what religious liberty now does is empower their enemies."

Only 20 years ago, it was possible for left and right to find common ground on key religious liberty issues. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed unanimously in the House and by a 97-3 vote in the Senate, backed by a coalition that ranged from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Christian Legal Society.

Only five years later, another similar effort failed.

"We had gone from 97-3 to partisan gridlock ... and disagreement over religious liberty has only gotten worse since that time," Laycock told the Newseum audience. He was speaking the day after addressing the U.S. Supreme Court on yet another tense case about public prayer.

The key change, he said, is that there has been a violent legal and political clash between gay rights and the rights of religious conscientious objectors. At this point, it may be too late to find a compromise that would protect citizens on both sides of this constitutional firefight.

One crucial problem, he explained, is that conservative religious leaders have been "so focused on entirely defeating" same-sex marriage bills that they have paid little attention to religious-liberty exemptions "until they have been totally defeated and then, of course, it is too late. They have no leverage. They have nothing to bargain with."

Meanwhile, as the gay-rights cause has gained momentum, its leaders have grown increasingly bold. More than a few liberals, said Laycock, not only want to seize sexual freedoms, but to force religious objectors to affirm their choices and even to pay for them. Some on the left, he said, are now "making arguments calculated to destroy religious liberty."

Consider, Laycock said, language used by state Sen. Pat Steadman of Denver, as he fought for a civil unions bill in the Colorado Senate last February. What should liberals say to those who claim that their religious liberties are being violated?

"I'll tell you what I'd say -- get thee to a nunnery," he said, in debate recorded on the Senate floor. "Go live a monastic life, away from modern society, away from the people you can't see as equals to yourself. Away from the stream of commerce where you might have to serve them, or employ them, or rent banquet halls to them. Go someplace and be as judgmental as you like. Go inside your church, establish separate water fountains, if you want."

This was provocative language, but this gay leader was using arguments now common in American politics, said Laycock. "No living in peace and equality and diversity for him. If you are a religious dissenter you have to conform or withdraw. For many people this hostility to religious liberty is a growing and intuitive reaction."

It's too soon to predict the death of religious liberty in America, as it has been known and defended for generations, he said. But the current trends are sobering.

"Maybe compromise will prevail yet," he concluded. "Maybe the judges will do their jobs and protect the liberty of both sides. But the tendency of both sides to insist on a total win -- liberty for them and not liberty for the other side -- is a very bad thing for religious liberty."

Military chaplains on Sexual Revolution front lines

It was in 1775 that General George Washington authorized chaplains in the Continental Army. "Purity of Morals," he wrote, three years later, provided the "only sure foundation of publick happiness in any Country" and thus was "highly conducive to order, subordination and success in an Army." "Purity of Morals" might have provided unity during the American Revolution, but chaplains face more divisive issues decades after the Sexual Revolution.

"No Catholic priest or deacon may be forced by any authority to witness or bless the union of couples of the same gender," wrote Archbishop for the Military Services Timothy Broglio, in guidelines released last month (.pdf). "No Catholic priest or deacon can be obliged to assist at a 'Strong Bonds' or other 'Marriage Retreat,' if that gathering is also open to couples of the same gender. A priest who is asked to counsel non-Catholic parties in a same-gendered relationship will direct them to a chaplain who is able to assist."

The archbishop's missive followed a remarkably similar memorandum from Southern Baptist Convention leaders, including former U.S. Army Chief of Chaplains Douglas Carver, a retired two-star general. It stressed that Southern Baptist chaplains must teach that "all forms of sexual immorality," including adultery, homosexuality and pornography, are "equally destructive to healthy marital relations."

However, the document's main purpose was to offer guidance on issues emerging after Pentagon decisions to embrace same-sex marriage and to allow gays and lesbians to openly serve in the armed forces.

Southern Baptist chaplains, stressed the guidelines, could not "conduct or attend" same-sex union rites or join in counseling sessions or retreats that "give the appearance of accepting ... sexual wrongdoing." The document also drew a stark line between the work of SBC chaplains and those representing liberal traditions, saying they should not lead worship services with any clergyperson who "personally practices or affirms a homosexual lifestyle or such conduct."

While one Army manual says chaplains are not obligated to perform duties "contrary to their faith traditions, tenets and beliefs," other regulations stress that all chaplains must be willing to provide "religious support" for all personnel in their care.

The "Chaplain Activities in the United States Army" volume notes, for example, that while chaplains "remain fully accountable to the code of ethics and ecclesiastical standards of their endorsing faith group" this does not relieve them from their duty to provide "adequate religious support to accomplish the mission."

Thus, it's significant that Army materials promoting the chaplain-led "Strong Bonds" program indicate that its mission is to help all soldiers -- singles, unmarried couples and families -- thrive in the "turbulence of the military environment."

It will be impossible for doctrinally conservative clergy to avoid same-gender couples and families in that context. Thus, it's time for some chaplains to quit, according to a manifesto from the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers entitled, "Didn't Southern Baptists Just Resign as Military Chaplains?"

"The SBC policy is encouraging because it is an honest representation of the previous unwritten anti-gay stance of the SBC, ... but is discouraging in that it does not take full responsibility and resign explicitly from a military chaplaincy they clearly do not wish to partake in," said the MilitaryAtheists.org analysis.

"The policy as written may potentially be copied by other endorsing agencies who share the same view of scripture. If other agencies follow suit, potentially 50 percent of military chaplains may be affected."

Clearly, the nation's two largest churches do play crucial roles in the chaplaincy program. A mere 234 priests serve the 25 percent of all military personnel who are Catholics. The Southern Baptist Convention has more than 1,500 approved chaplains, more than any other faith group.

America's military leaders will have to decide if doctrinally conservative chaplains will be allowed to honor their religious vows or not, said the Rev. Russell Moore, leader of the SBC's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in a forum last week.

The current trend, he said, is to view chaplains as "carriers of the American civil religion, in a way that seeks to counsel and to do some religious duties but not to actually be Roman Catholics or Evangelicals or Latter-day Saints or Muslims or what have you. I think that is troubling. ... I believe in religious pluralism in the public square where everyone comes as he or she is into the public square for more dialogue and not less."

The Anglican wars roll on (and Holy Communion for dogs)

The German Shepherd's name was Trapper and he came to St. Peter's Anglican Church with his owner, a newcomer at the historic Toronto parish. At the end of the Mass, Trapper went forward with everyone else for Holy Communion. That's when the vicar, in what she later described as a welcoming gesture, served the dog some of the consecrated bread that Anglicans believe has -- in a mysterious manner -- become the body of Jesus Christ.

So one parishioner complained to the bishop and, in a flash, critics online were quoting Matthew 7:6 ("Do not give dogs what is holy...") and the controversy -- this story has had long legs -- even reached BBC with the headline, "Canadian priest sorry for giving dog Holy Communion."

It seems that strange and dramatic events of this kind happen year after year in the global Anglican Communion -- truly one of God's gifts to headline writers.

Also, it appears unlikely that this trend will change anytime soon. Recently, in a burst of candor in Mexico, the current Archbishop of Canterbury harkened back to the English Civil War and quoted sobering advice from Bishop Jeremy Taylor, who was under the patronage of Archbishop William Laud when the latter was executed in 1645 by the Puritan parliament.

The Most Rev. Justin Welby noted that Taylor warned: "It is unnatural and unreasonable to persecute disagreeing opinions. ... Force in matters of opinion can do no good, but is very apt to do hurt."

These are hard words in an era in which England's shrinking flock of Anglicans is still fighting over female bishops and, across the Atlantic, the shrinking flock of Episcopalians continues to fight over non-celibate gay bishops. Meanwhile, leaders in the growing Global South churches of Africa and Asia are calling for repentance and doctrinal discipline.

During an August 13 address in Monterrey, Welby said he sometimes worries that Anglicans are "drifting back" into a true civil war of their own.

"Not consciously, of course, but in an unconscious way that is more dangerous. Like a drunk man walking near the edge of a cliff, we trip and totter and slip and wander, ever nearer to the edge of the precipice," he said, in the released text.

"On one side is the steep fall into an absence of any core beliefs, a chasm where we lose touch with God, and thus we rely only on ourselves and our own message. On the other side there is a vast fall into a ravine of intolerance and cruel exclusion. It is for those who claim all truth, and exclude any who question. When we fall into this place, we lose touch with human beings and create a small church, or rather many small churches -- divided, ineffective in serving the poor, the hungry and the suffering, incapable of living with each other, and incomprehensible to those outside the church."

The problem? One bishop's "core beliefs" are another's cruel dogmas. And, according to Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, Christianity is entering another 500-year cycle of doctrinal reform similar to that of Martin Luther.

"The major shifts of focus of these periodic seismic events are profoundly unsettling to many people, but they seem to be necessary to God's mission," she said, in an August 15 address at the national assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, meeting in Pittsburgh.

Anger and fear caused by rapid political and cultural changes have caused some members of liberal Protestant flocks to flee, said Jefferts Schori, whose denomination has declined from 3.6 million members in 1965 to 1.9 million in 2011. In the tumultuous past decade, average Sunday attendance has declined nearly 25 percent, to roughly 650,000 Episcopalians.

Jefferts Schori's flock is also aging rapidly, in part because -- as she boldly told The New York Times in 2006 -- Episcopalians are "better-educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates" than Catholics and other believers and because they "pay attention to the stewardship of the earth."

While other are seeing signs of peril, she said, progressives must see progress, especially when fighting for gay rights, racial justice and causes central to their faith.

"The challenges that both our churches have experienced around issues of inclusion of all human beings in recent years have reminded us that God is always at work -- on us, within us, and among us," said Jefferts Schori. "Some have judged our smaller numbers as faithlessness but it may actually be the Spirit's way of pruning for greater fruitfulness."

Define ‘evangelical’ — 2013 edition

List America’s prominent evangelical Protestant voices and the Rev. Rick Warren remains near the top, up in the mix with the Rev. Brian McLaren, Bishop T.D. Jakes, Jim Wallis, the Rev. Tim Keller and others.

Many evangelicals, of course, like to argue about who belongs on that list. In recent years, it has become increasingly obvious that the experts are finding it harder to decide who is and who is not an “evangelical” in the first place.

“I know what the word ‘evangelical’ is supposed to mean,” said Warren, 58, leader of the 20,000-member Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., with its many branch congregations and ministries. “I mean, I know what the word ‘evangelical’ used to mean.”

The problem, he said, is that many Americans no longer link “evangelical” with a set of traditional doctrines, such as evangelistic efforts to reach the lost, the defense of biblical authority, projects to help the needy and the conviction that salvation is found through faith in Jesus Christ, alone.

Somewhere during the George W. Bush years the word “evangelical” — a term used in church history — got “co-opted into being a political term,” said Warren, in a recent telephone interview.

Arguments about this vague word are not new. During a 1987 interview with the Rev. Billy Graham, I asked him point blank, “What does the word ‘evangelical’ mean?”

The world’s best-known evangelist responded, “Actually, that’s a question I’d like to ask somebody, too. … You go all the way from the extreme fundamentalists to the extreme liberals and, somewhere in between, there are the evangelicals.” Ultimately, Graham said an “evangelical” is someone who preaches salvation through faith in Jesus and believes all the doctrines in the Nicene Creed — especially in the resurrection.

Warren said he would certainly agree with Graham’s bottom line, which is that “evangelical” must be defined in terms of doctrine. The problem is that this isn’t how the term is being used in the public square — especially in the news media.

During the administration of President George W. Bush, he said, most journalists “seemed to think seemed to think that ‘evangelical’ meant that you backed the Iraq war, for some reason or another. … Right now, I don’t think there is any question that way too many people have decided that evangelicals are people who oppose gay rights — period. That’s all the word means.”

Warren based this judgment on his experiences during 22 interviews with major newspapers, magazines and television networks — a pre-Christmas blitz marking the release of an expanded, 10th anniversary edition of his book “The Purpose Driven Life: What On Earth Am I Here For?” The book has sold more than 32 million copies around the world, with translations in 50 languages.

By the end of that media storm, Warren said members of his team were starting to cast bets on whether the perfunctory gay-marriage question would be the first, or the second, question in each interview. On CNN, interviewer Piers Morgan noted that the U.S. Constitution and the Bible are “well-intentioned” but “inherently flawed.”

Morgan continued: “My point to you about gay rights for example — it’s time for an amendment to the Bible.”

Warren, of course, disagreed: “I do not believe the Bible is flawed, and I willingly admit … that I base my worldview on the Bible, which I believe is true, and truth. … It was true 1,000 years ago, it’ll be true 1,000 years from today.”

Time after time, said Warren, interviewers assumed that his beliefs on moral and cultural issues — from salvation to sexual ethics — were based on mere political convictions, rather than on the Bible and centuries of doctrine.

“I’ve decided that don’t have faith, so politics is their religion,” he said. “Politics is the only thing that is really real to many people in our world today. … So if politics isn’t at the center of your life, then many people just can’t understand what you’re saying.”

In the end, said Warren, it may be time for various brands of Protestants — charismatics, Baptists, Wesleyans, Lutherans, Calvinists and others — to stop trying to rally under a common “evangelical” umbrella and to start talking more about the specific traditions that shape their beliefs and actions.

“Maybe ‘evangelical’ will be like the word ‘liberal,’ ” he said. “When that word turned into a negative, all of a sudden everybody on the left turned into ‘progressives’ and they moved right on. … Perhaps it’s time to give ‘evangelical’ a rest.”

Secular unions vs. Holy Matrimony, Part II

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of two columns on current debates about Holy Matrimony and civil unions.

Gay-rights advocates know the formula and so do their opponents: If gay marriage becomes a civil right, then religious believers who dare to defend ancient doctrines on marriage will become de facto segregationists and suffer the legal consequences.

The problem for the left is that this happens to be true.

"Before we shrug and reply, 'So what if it's religious? It's still bigotry, it's still intolerable,' we need to remember that religious liberty is America’s founding principle. It is embedded in the country’s DNA, not to mention in the First Amendment," argued gay commentator Jonathon Rauch, writing in The Advocate.

"If we pick a fight with it or, worse, let ourselves be maneuvered into a fight with it, our task will become vastly harder. ... Even if you don't happen to believe, as I do, that religious liberty is, like gay equality, a basic human right, the pragmatic case for religious accommodations is clear: Being seen as a threat to religious freedom is not in our interest."

This is the state of things, as the U.S. Supreme Court ponders whether the time is right to address this hot-button topic. Meanwhile, gay-rights groups recently won several ballot-box victories in liberal zip codes.

Some conservatives have proposed radical strategies in response, such as scholar George Weigel's suggestion that it may be time for the Catholic church to "preemptively withdraw from the civil marriage business, its clergy declining to act as agents of government in witnessing marriages for purposes of state law."

That would be a powerful symbolic gesture, but "taking that action would do nothing to resolve the religious-liberty issues that are causing conflicts here in America, or will cause additional conflicts in the future," said Stanley Carlson-Thies, director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance. Even if traditional religious leaders attempt to legally separate Holy Matrimony from secular marriage, it is still the government's definition of marriage that will decide a variety of issues outside sanctuary doors, especially in public life.

"The other question, " he said, "is whether those on the cultural left will be willing, at this point, to settle for civil unions. ... We will need people on both sides to work together if there are going to be meaningful compromises."

One divisive issue in these gay-marriage debates overlaps with current fights over White House mandates requiring most religious institutions to offer health-care plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved forms of contraception, including so-called "morning-after pills." These Health and Human Services requirements recognize the conscience rights of employers only if they are nonprofits that have the "inculcation of religious values" as their primary purpose, primarily employ "persons who share ... religious tenets" and primarily serve those "who share ... religious tenets."

Critics insist this protects mere "freedom of worship," not the First Amendment's wider "free exercise of religion."

Here is the parallel: In gay-marriage debates, almost everyone concedes that clergy must not be required to perform same-sex rites that violate their consciences.

The question is whether legislatures and courts will extend protection to religious hospitals, homeless shelters, summer camps, day-care centers, counseling facilities, adoption agencies and similar public ministries. What about religious colleges that rent married-student apartments or seek accreditation for their degrees in education, counseling or social work? What about the religious-liberty rights of individuals who work as florists, wedding photographers, wedding-cake bakers, counselors who do pre- or post-marital counseling and other similar forms of business?

These are only some of the thorny issues that worry many activists on both sides of the gay-rights divide. Law professor Douglas Laycock, then of the University of Michigan, provided this summary in a letter to the governor of New Hampshire.

"I support same-sex marriage," he stressed. Nevertheless, the "net effect for human liberty will be no better than a wash if same-sex couples now oppress religious dissenters in the same way that those dissenters, when they had the power to do so, treated same-sex couples in ways that those couples found oppressive.

"Nor is it in the interest of the gay and lesbian community to create religious martyrs in the enforcement of this bill. ... Every such case will be in the news repeatedly, and every such story will further inflame the opponents of same-sex marriage. Refusing exemptions to such religious dissenters will politically empower the most demagogic opponents of same-sex marriage. It will ensure that the issue remains alive, bitter, and deeply divisive."

Billy Graham & Co. push the values voters

The television talking heads all agreed that the election was over, which ignited celebrations among the staff and supporters of winner Richard Nixon -- including the world's most famous evangelist. "We did it," proclaimed the Rev. Billy Graham, according to iconoclastic journalist Joe McGinniss in "The Selling of the President 1968." Graham, he added, went "directly into Nixon's room, without explaining whether 'we' meant Billy Graham and Richard Nixon or Billy Graham and God or perhaps all three together."

Years later, a repentant Graham said he wept and became ill when he heard Nixon's paranoid, profanity-laced chatter on the Watergate tapes. While "America's pastor" kept meeting with presidents -- as he has with every Oval Office occupant since Harry Truman -- he vowed never again to become that attached to a candidate.

The question, for Graham's critics and even some supporters, is whether the national advertising campaign launched on Oct. 18th by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association -- now led by son Franklin Graham -- has crossed that line. The target audience: Readers of USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, key swing-state newspapers and church bulletins nationwide.

"The legacy we leave behind for our children, grandchildren and this great nation is crucial," proclaims one ad. "As I approach my 94th birthday, I realize this election could be my last. I believe it is vitally important that we cast our ballots for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel.

"I urge you to vote for those who protect the sanctity of life and support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman."

It's easy to read between those lines, noted sociologist William Martin, author of "A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story."

"Billy Graham representatives note that the ads do not mention a specific candidate or party -- an observation intended more for the IRS than for the target audience," wrote Martin, at Christianity Today online. "Given that former Gov. Mitt Romney opposes same-sex marriage and President Barack Obama supports it (and by doing so, has -- to use Franklin Graham's words -- "shaken his fist" at God), the ads leave no doubt about their intent."

There's more. Romney aides claim that, at the end of a recent meeting with the candidate, the evangelist promised: "I'll do all I can to help you. And you can quote me on that."

Months earlier, the Graham organization also released statements urging North Carolina voters to back a state constitutional amendment on marriage and an appeal for support of "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day," after the company's president drew fire for defending traditional Christian doctrines on sex and marriage.

Meanwhile, former Graham-organization webmaster Steve Knight has said -- in a much-circulated Huffington Post essay -- that enough is enough. It's significant that Knight now works with a denomination on the religious left, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

"My concern is that here's how things like this continue to work," warned Knight. "Franklin Graham (or Franklin and his sister Anne Graham Lotz) have an agenda (in all ... of these cases, "traditional marriage"), they get a BGEA copywriter to draft the text, ... Franklin approves the copy and-or design, then Franklin drives out to Little Piney Cove (Billy's cabin home outside of Asheville, N.C.) and holds the piece of paper in front of Billy and asks, 'Daddy, can we publish this?' And Billy nods (or whatever he's capable of doing at this point in his life), and Franklin goes back and publishes this stuff with his good father's name all over it."

Veteran Graham spokesman A. Larry Ross has vehemently denied this and other claims that Graham has, in effect, become a puppet used and abused by Franklin Graham and others.

"In the years since his last public crusade, Billy Graham has been increasingly burdened by society's moral decline and the need for renewal in our culture and revival in the church," noted Ross, in the Christianity Today forum. "Because he considers the institution of marriage as the cornerstone of society, he is opposed to any redefinition of marriage -- which he sees not as a political issue but rather a matter of religious freedom."

Thus, Ross added, Graham personally approved the use of these quotations in which he is heard "challenging citizens -- particularly the faith community -- on how to vote, rather than for whom to vote."

Bishops change course on religious liberty

When it comes to changing course, ecclesiastical bureaucracies are like giant oceangoing vessels that struggle to turn quickly when obstacles appear in their paths. It took time, but the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has made a sea change in how it works on religious freedom issues.

Faced with what they see as dangerous trends in the Obama administration, the bishops recently announced the creation of their own Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. The goal is to address church-state trends that in recent decades have primarily been attacked by Protestant conservatives.

Anyone seeking the source of this development in American religion -- including recent blasts at the White House by the archbishops of New York and Los Angeles -- needs to study a 2009 Georgetown University speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It received relatively little attention at that time.

"Our human rights agenda for the 21st century is to make human rights a human reality and the first step is to see human rights in a broad context," she said, speaking on a campus known for its leadership on the Catholic left. "To fulfill their potential, people must be free to choose laws and leaders; to share and access information, to speak, criticize and debate. They must be free to worship, associate and to love in the way that they choose."

Conservatives cried foul, noting that the secretary of state had raised gay rights -- the right for all to "love in the way that they choose" -- to the same level as freedoms explicitly articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They also noticed that she mentioned a narrow right "to worship" instead of using more expansive terms such as religious "freedom" or "liberty."

"Religious freedom, rightly understood, cannot be reduced to freedom of worship," argued George Weigel, a Catholic conservative best known for his authorized biography of the late Pope John Paul II.

"Religious freedom includes the right to preach and evangelize, to make religiously informed moral arguments in the public square and to conduct the affairs of one's religious community without undue interference from the state. If religious freedom only involves the freedom to worship, then ... there is 'religious freedom' in Saudi Arabia, where Bibles and evangelism are forbidden but expatriate Filipino laborers can attend Mass in the U.S. embassy compound in Riyadh."

Nearly two years later, this list of concerns looms over a blunt letter (.pdf) from New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan to President Barack Obama, one inspired by Obama administration attempts to overturn the national Defense of Marriage Act.

America's bishops "cannot be silent ... when federal steps harmful to marriage, the laws defending it, and religious freedom continue apace," claimed Dolan, who now leads the USCCB. It is especially unfair, he added, to "equate opposition to redefining marriage with either intentional or willfully ignorant racial discrimination, as your Administration insists on doing."

Dolan was even more frank in a letter (.pdf) to the U.S. bishops, claiming that the Justice Department is undercutting "our ancient Catholic belief, rooted in the teachings of Jesus and also the Jewish Scriptures." If this doctrine continues to be "labeled as a form of bigotry," he argued, this will surely "lead to new challenges to our liberties."

In addition to clashes on same-sex marriage, Dolan listed other concerns, including Health and Human Services regulations requiring all private health insurance to cover birth control and so-called "morning-after pills." Critics claim that the religious exception would protect few religious institutions, including colleges, and would leave insurers or individuals with moral objections completely vulnerable. The Justice Department, in recent Supreme Court proceedings, also questioned the need for the "ministerial exception" that allows religious groups to hire, and fire, ministers and staff members without government interference.

According to Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, "We are slowly losing our sense of religious liberty" in modern America.

"There is much evidence to suggest that our society no longer values the public role of religion or recognizes the importance of religious freedom as a basic right," he argued, in an essay for the journal First Things. Instead, "our courts and government agencies increasingly treat the right to hold and express religious beliefs as only one of many private lifestyle options. And, they observe, this right is often 'trumped' in the face of challenges from competing rights or interests deemed to be more important."