Curt Smith: Undermining the freedom of religion

Keywords Forefront / Opinion

SmithHoosiers once venerated faith leaders in public life, but today we denigrate or even desecrate those taking a public stand for religion.

Consider Indianapolis Archbishop Charles Thompson. We have not met, but I respect his principled stand that Catholic schools under his purview in central Indiana must hire faculty whose lives are consistent with the human sexuality (among other) Roman Catholic Church teachings they are charged with imparting to students.

“One’s orientation is not sin, as I said in the beginning,” Thompson told WRTV-TV Channel 6. “It’s the public witness with the church’s teachings. … We do the same thing if someone is cohabiting.”

He needed to take a public stand because a Roncalli Catholic high school guidance counselor was dismissed last year, and in June, a Cathedral Catholic high school teacher was let go because both were in homosexual marriages.

In between, Brebeuf high school rebuffed the archbishop by refusing to dismiss an openly gay teacher. I intentionally dropped Catholic from Brebeuf’s description, because Thompson decided to no longer recognize Brebeuf as a Catholic institution.

The usual howling and condemnations ensued. We know them well, alas, and nothing new was offered. Social media bristled with out-of-state activist rants.

Maybe Thompson’s image was not tweeted around the world—complete with photoshopped horns—as happened to some during the Religious Freedom Restoration Act legislative debates in 2015. But, sadly, neither have our civic leaders stepped forward to support the archbishop’s courage to do what was right for the church he leads.

And why is that important? Because two foundational issues to the quality of “our democracy” rest on letting the church be the church.

The first essential issue: Who defines what it means to be Catholic? The short answer is Catholics—not the Legislature, the courts, the media, or elite progressive opinion. The long answer from a non-Catholic also in public ministry is, the Catholic Church has a formal, hierarchical structure beginning with the pope, then cardinals, archbishops and bishops. Their decisions bind church members.

The religious leader’s authority is a distinctive, indeed defining, element of Catholicism. It is also a frequently and heatedly debated aspect of the sexual scandal besetting the Catholic Church, making the archbishop’s judgment more poignant.

So Catholics should define—in a religiously free and spiritually tolerant America—what it means to be a faithful member of the Catholic Church.

Second, the more virulent critics make a false and dangerous distinction regarding church authority when it comes to schools.

The argument goes that children who receive vouchers from the state of Indiana often take those vouchers to Catholic schools and other religious institutions, including Roncalli, Cathedral and Brebeuf. The vouchers, however, do not go to the schools; they go to the kids (with parents and guardians guiding decisions for younger students). Indiana courts have affirmed this since the law was passed more than a decade ago.

This is no different from the GI Bill. If you serve in the U.S. military and earn higher education benefits, you can take those “vouchers,” or credits, to the University of Notre Dame or Purdue University. You choose.

Yet 30 members of the Indiana General Assembly—all Democrats—voted to disallow vouchers for schools like Roncalli and Cathedral unless they acquiesce to hiring teachers, administrators and staff without regard to the beliefs, tenets and teachings of the school or its governing authority.

This is far more dangerous than trashing our public theologians, as bad as that is. This undermines freedom of religion itself.•

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Smith is chairman of the Indiana Family Institute and author of “Deicide: Why Eliminating The Deity is Destroying America.” Send comments to [email protected]

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