Mississippi’s new religious freedom law helps protect Catholic education and social services like adoption, said the Catholic Bishop of Jackson.
The bishop said his diocese supported the bill out of these concerns.
“We would like to continue to provide these services while remaining faithful to the teachings of the Catholic Church,” Bishop Joseph Kopacz said.
Last week the Mississippi governor signed the state’s new religious freedom law, H.B. 1523.
The act specifically protects the belief in marriage as a union of a man and a woman and the belief that sexual activity should be reserved for marriage. It also protects the belief that the idea of male and female are rooted in an individual’s biological sex.
The law bars government action against religious organizations that make decisions regarding employment or services based on this belief in marriage — for example, an adoption agency that believes in placing children only with a married mother and father.
It protects individuals involved in services like wedding photography, counseling, or fertility treatments. It also provides some protections to state employees, such as clerks with objections to licensing same-sex unions as marriages.
In other states, Catholic adoption agencies have been shut down because of laws requiring them to place children in situations without both a father and a mother. Catholic schools have faced lawsuits for requiring moral standards for teachers and other employees. Some people in the wedding industry have faced legal penalties for declining business involving a same-sex ceremony.
Bishop Kopacz said that the diocese has no involvement in the bill’s other portions about business and government operations. Rather, its support was limited to specific issues.
“This is invoked with malice toward none,” Bishop Kopacz said April 11. “Likewise, there is certainly a place for freedom of conscience in the public domain, an inviolable attribute of human dignity, but it should never be employed to discriminate against any person, a direct assault against human dignity.”
He cited Pope Francis’ post-synod exhortation “Amoris Laetitia,” which said: “The Church makes her own the attitude of the Lord Jesus, who offers his boundless love to each person without exception.”
The bishop explained the concern that Catholic schools be free to require that teachers teach and live what the Church believes.
“This is not a matter of discrimination but of being faithful to the mission and Gospel teachings entrusted to the Church by the Lord Jesus,” he said.
He said he wrote to legislators concerning the Church’s role in adoption and foster care. He asked them “to uphold our desire to serve while remaining faithful to our tradition of marriage in the placement of children.”
The bishop also cited Catholic Charities’ 23 programs or ministries that serve people like homeless veterans, victims of domestic violence and rape, legal immigrants, unaccompanied refugee minors and children in the foster system.
“We serve all who are in need or in crisis situations with expertise, compassion, confidentiality and respect. The dignity of each person is upheld, and no one is turned away.”
He said the Mississippi law protects First Amendment rights for religious groups and individual citizens.
“The Church will continue to work to protect its First Amendment right to worship, to educate and to serve in the public domain while respecting the dignity of all citizens,” Bishop Kopacz said.
Like other proposed state religious freedom laws, the Mississippi law became the subject of controversy from activist groups and some business groups who charged that it was discriminatory on the basis of marital status, sexual orientation and gender identity.
Gov. Phil Bryant signed the bill into law April 5. He said it is “designed in the most targeted manner possible to prevent government interference in the lives of the people.”
Bishop Kopacz characterized the controversy as a conflict “between religious freedom and freedom of conscience versus discrimination,” with a significant focus on same-sex unions and the redefinition of marriage.
He stressed the importance of both Catholic teaching on marriage and God’s unconditional love.
“Some want to frame the debate surrounding the Church’s teaching as discrimination and hostility toward homosexual persons. On the contrary, we are being faithful to our mission to ‘speak the truth in love’ and to live with the heart and mind of our risen Lord who came that all might be reconciled to God.”
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