I recently wrote an article for Commonweal about the Bishops’ statement on religious freedom and its failure to address the important issue of so-called anti-Shariah legislation. At the conclusion of the article I expressed hope that the bishops would address this glaring oversight and show themselves to be the true champions of religious freedom of all Americans that they claim in their statement. If they were going to show increased awareness of and sensitivity for the religious rights of Muslims the General Assembly of the USCCB, now taking place in Atlanta, would have been an ideal time for it. Occurring just days before the start of the much publicized “Fortnight for Freedom”, this Assembly represents the ideal public forum for the bishops to get their message out and demonstrate the compassion and competency we have reason to expect from them at this critical moment. Instead, what we have already seen is further evidence of the ignorance and bigotry which I warned about in my article.
As Michael Sean Winters has pointed out, in yesterday’s afternoon session Bishop Lori, the leader of the Bishops Committee on Religious Freedom, and John Garvey, President of Catholic University of America and a leading lay spokesman for the Fortnight of Freedom, addressed the bishops on the topic of the HHS Mandate. At the conclusion of their address they took questions. The first question was from Bishop Bruskewitz of the Lincoln, Nebraska Diocese. His question and Bishop Lori and President Garvey’s response come at the 1:31 mark of this video, but I have transcribed them below:
I haven’t had a chance to read the Obamacare Protection Act, but somebody told me that there is a total exemption from Muslims in the back of that Act that all Muslims are exempt because insurance for Muslims is a type of gambling which is contrary to the Koran and therefore Muslims are not obliged in anyway to observe the insurance mandate which derives from the act. I’m not sure if that’s true or not, but I just want to know if any of you know anything about it.
Bishop, you must have got a lot further in that act than I did (laughter). I don’t really know.
John Garvey, President, Catholic University of America
I wish I could say more. We should ask the lawyers. I used to be a lawyer, but I just act it now. (laughter)
Let's be perfectly clear—there is absolutely no substance to the question Bruskewitz asked about some sort of conspiracy to let Muslims off the hook from the Affordable Care Act. It is, frankly, the kind of urban myth legend that one sees trumpeted at the most ignorant of websites and it has been thoroughly debunked at numerous fact checking sites for over two years. That we have a Catholic bishop giving voice to these kinds of questions is sad enough, but perhaps to be expected coming from someone as notorious as Bishop Bruskewitz. What we should not expect, and what we should in fact be concerned about, is the ignorance of Lori and Garvey. Here are the two men at the forefront of the bishops’ efforts to convey competence and compassion to the Catholic community and the broader public. They regularly trumpet the notion that the bishops’ efforts are for the common good of all Americans. And yet in the face of a question advancing the supposition that an entire religious group is receiving the exemptions the Catholic community is supposedly being denied, they have nothing more to say than “we don’t know”? This is beyond absurd, it is scandalous. Bishop Lori--you really don't know if the document you have spent the better part of the last 18 months criticizing does or does not allow for an entire religious group to exempt itself from its reach? Then why should we trust your judgments about the President's actions on religious freedom? Why should we trust your stated commitment to represent religious freedom for all, when you are ignorant of even the most basic facts related to a major religious group and its standing before the very law that you have made your reputation upon criticizing?
We have a right to expect better, or we have a duty to question the real agenda of the bishops. If the best the bishops have to offer is creepy, conspiratorial questions that reflect the very worst of anti-Muslim conspiracy thinking, and/or vacuous responses like Lori and Garvey's, then we are either faced with incompetence or subtle acceptance of bigotry. Either choice is sad. As Winters puts it: "Perhaps at today's session, Bishop Bruskewitz can ask the bishop of Honolulu if he has really seen Obama's birth certificate."
[Further thoughts on these issues at this new post]