Washington D.C., Sep 14, 2016 / 03:32 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- After the chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights called current appeals to religious freedom “hypocrisy,” one archbishop rebuked his statement as “reckless” and ignorant. “These statements painting those who support religious freedom with the broad brush of bigotry are reckless and reveal a profound disregard for the religious foundations of his own work,” Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore said.

Archbishop Lori chairs the U.S. bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty and made his comments Tuesday in reaction to a recent statement by the chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Martin R. Castro. The commission had released its report “Peaceful Coexistence: reconciling non-discrimination principles with religious liberties” last week. The report was in the works for three years, exploring the conflicts between anti-discrimination laws and religious exemptions from those laws.

One example of that conflict might be Christian owners of a bakery who decline to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding, despite a state’s anti-discrimination laws. Or it could be a parochial school choosing to make employment decisions based on a person’s religious beliefs and conduct. Or, in a high-profile case, a religious order like the Little Sisters of the Poor might refuse out of conscience to have contraceptives covered in the health plans of their employees, and thus be accused of discriminating against those employees.

Regarding these conflicts, Chairman Castro, a Democrat and Obama appointee, issued a particularly strong statement against many appeals to religious freedom today. “The phrases 'religious liberty' and 'religious freedom' will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia or any form of intolerance,” he said. He added that “today, as in past, religion is being used as both a weapon and a shield by those seeking to deny others equality. In our nation’s past religion has been used to justify slavery and later, Jim Crow laws.”

Archbishop Lori called Castro's comparison of today’s religious leaders with yesterday’s segregationists “shocking.” “He makes the shocking suggestion that Catholic, evangelical, orthodox Jewish, Mormon, and Muslim communities are comparable to fringe segregationists from the civil rights era,” the archbishop said. Faith leaders have a proud tradition of supporting the cause of civil rights in the U.S., Archbishop Lori insisted.

“Can we imagine the civil rights movement without Rev. Martin Luther King, Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel?” he asked. That tradition continues today, he added. “Today, Catholic priests, religious and laity can be found walking the neighborhood streets of our most struggling communities in places abandoned by a 'throwaway culture' that has too often determined that quick profits matter more than communities,” he said.

“We are there offering education, health care, social services, and hope, working to serve as the 'field hospital' Pope Francis has called us to be.” “Rest assured, if people of faith continue to be marginalized, it is the poor and vulnerable, not the Chairman and his friends, who will suffer,” Archbishop Lori maintained.

“Peaceful Coexistence,” released last week, sided with anti-discrimination protections when they are in a perceived conflict with religious freedom exemptions, and asks that religious exemptions be as narrow as possible. “Civil rights protections ensuring nondiscrimination, as embodied in the Constitution, laws, and policies, are of preeminent importance in American jurisprudence,” the report stated.

Meanwhile, “religious exemptions to the protections of civil rights based upon classifications such as race, color, national origin, sex, disability status, sexual orientation, and gender identity, when they are permissible, significantly infringe upon these civil rights,” it added.

Furthermore, the report recommended that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act be amended, which could mean a massive shift in religious freedom jurisprudence. The act was passed in 1993 — with a 97-3 vote in the U.S. Senate — after the Supreme Court ruled in Employment Division v. Smith that a person’s religiously motivated actions were not protected when they conflicted with existing law.

Thus, RFRA created a process to determine whether a religiously-motivated action could be exempt from federal law. The law must not “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless the government can “demonstrate” that it is “in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest” and “is the least restrictive means” of doing so.

The Supreme Court in 2014 ruled that Hobby Lobby, a closely-held for-profit corporation run by the Green family, was protected under the law. In response last week, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights insisted that only “individuals and religious institutions” and not businesses could be protected under the law, “and only to the extent that they do not unduly burden civil liberties and civil rights protections against status-based discrimination.” States should follow suit with their own RFRA-type laws, the report added.

Two commissioners dissented from the majority ruling. One, Gail Heriot, said that “the Commission majority takes a complex subject and tries to make it simple — far too simple. Not many legal or constitutional issues come down to good guys vs. bad guys.” She issued a sharp rebuke of Chairman Castro’s statement on the “hypocrisy” of religious freedom being supposedly used to discriminate against others.  

“In some ways, I envy anyone who can dismiss those who disagree with him as mere hypocrites,” Heriot said of Castro. “Does Chairman Castro really believe that the Little Sisters of the Poor, whose case is currently before the Supreme Court, are just a bunch of hypocrites? Does he believe that they are making up their concern over being compelled to finance their employees' contraception? Does he think they really just want to save money?” The chair also “inexplicably associates statutes like the RFRA with 'Christian supremacy,'” she continued.

However, “RFRA protects people of all faiths. Indeed, it is the adherents to less common religions — Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus, and Bahá’ís — that usually derive the most protection from RFRA and RFRA-style laws. Their political clout may be otherwise too weak to influence legislation.”

Religious charities should be exempt from non-discrimination laws because they are not even discriminating, Archbishop Lori said. “We do not seek to impose our morality on anyone, but neither can we sacrifice it in our own lives and work,” he said. “The vast majority of those who speak up for religious liberty are merely asking for the freedom to serve others as our faith asks of us. We ask that the work of our institutions be carried out by people who believe in our mission and respect a Christian witness.”

Ultimately, the future of a pluralistic society is at stake, Archbishop Lori warned. “In a pluralistic society, there will be institutions with views at odds with popular opinion,” he said. “The Chairman's statement suggests that the USCCR does not see the United States as a pluralistic society. We respect those who disagree with what we teach. Can they respect us?”