To the dismay of some, many Americans still insist on living out their faith in the public square. These are the people fostering and adopting children, caring for the elderly and the poor, and organizing relief after natural disasters. They’ll carry on doing so even as their numbers shrink – unless they are stopped by politicians, judges, and public officials who are ready to tear up the guarantee of religious freedom in the Constitution.
And, make no mistake about it, that is a real possibility. Suddenly, religious liberty and what have become known as “conscience rights” are threatened by dogmatic secularists.
These secularists call themselves liberals but actually belong to the radical left. They desperately want to place an asterisk next to the guarantee of the free exercise of religion offered by the First Amendment. Living out one’s faith, they assert, mustn't interfere with the promotion of any fashionable ideology.
What’s worse is that they aren’t even content with a narrow – and incorrect – view of the First Amendment as involving only the right to worship. The COVID-19 pandemic has been exploited by extremists who disapprove of churchgoing. Despite the science supporting a safe return to communal worship, freely attending a church service in places like San Francisco is harder than going to the supermarket or the gym.
The Supreme Court has yet to address head-on (in a decision on the merits) pandemic restrictions on worship. It has shown, as reflected in a string of decisions last term, a renewed commitment to religious freedom. This term, the high court will again be asked to safeguard religious freedom against demands for ideological conformity. Fulton v. City of Philadelphia involves a Catholic-run foster care agency. City officials cut its decades-old ties with the agency after they realized that the agency would not operate contrary to church teaching on the nature of marriage. If last term is any indication, it’s highly likely that the Supreme Court will protect the Catholic agency’s right to serve needy children without having to abandon religious belief.
People of faith should be thankful that there is a federal judiciary inclined to protect them. But they also need to think beyond our borders, because the suppression of religious freedom here could have a terrible effect on parts of the world where faith is already experiencing a frontal assault.
Over the past few years, the United States has belatedly woken up to this international nightmare. It now has an Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, currently Sam Brownback, who, with the backing of the Secretary of State and the President, has forged alliances with like-minded countries committed to protecting persecuted believers.
Brownback and his allies know how desperate the situation has become across the globe. In Iraq, for example, members of the mostly Christian population of the Nineveh Plain have told us that they face fresh misery. Measures designed to contain the coronavirus have severely impacted desperately needed charitable assistance.
Meanwhile, Nigeria is turning into the world’s major killing ground of Christians. In the past decade, between 50,000 and 70,000 Christians have been murdered by various groups of Islamists, employing medieval methods of butchery that are too disgusting to describe in detail.
Communist China, by contrast, specializes in a more sophisticated persecution of Christians, employing face-recognition technology to monitor them. That’s when it isn’t simply demolishing churches, without warning or explanation. But it reserves its most vicious techniques for its the Muslim Uighur population, herding it into camps and forcing women to have abortions. Ambassador Brownback's observation is spot-on: China’s tactics against Uighur Muslims represent the “cutting edge of religious persecution.”
Recently the United States has done far more than most countries to draw attention to these atrocities. But it has done so without any support from America’s “progressive” lobby, which regards supernatural belief as standing in the way of progress. Should that lobby gain control of the levers of power across the country, it will not only curtail the free exercise of religion at home; it will also display a militant lack of interest in religious persecution abroad. And the killing grounds will spread.
Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is director of the Conscience Project, an organization advancing conscience rights through public education and amicus support in religious freedom cases.
Fr. Benedict Kiely is founder of Nasarean.org.