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Two recent events involving Roman Catholic hierarchy have once again brought the issue of religious liberty and state affairs into public view. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver and Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis are both dealing with issues at Catholic institutions that demand insights from Christian faith, not just public policy. While the particulars of the two cases differ, the underlying principle of religious liberty permeates every aspect of both conflicts.

According to proposed Colorado House Bill 1080 (HB 1080), its enactment would “limit the applicability of the exception from compliance with employment nondiscrimination laws for religious corporations, associations, educational institutions, or societies when employing persons to provide services that are funded with government funds.” While ending discrimination appears to be a noble endeavor, this bill actually attacks something very different. It attacks the heart of religious organizations of every denomination.

The freedom to hire without government interference is vital to the survival of religious institutions. In order to effectively promote the message of the organization, both the individual and the message must be in harmony. In all cases, the message consists of either the purpose of the organization, or the product, or both together. (Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Denver is the largest non-government human services provider in the Rocky Mountain West.) When an individual employed by the religious organization does not share in the harmony of intent, the organization suffers due to this lack of common purpose. This is the case made by Archbishop Chaput. His concern for Catholic Charities and its mission sparked his quick response to the proposed Colorado bill. “When it can no longer have the freedom it needs to be ‘Catholic,’ it will end its services,” he said. For Archbishop Chaput, the very life of the organization depends on coherence with its Catholic identity.

Directly related to the issue of religious freedom is the St. Louis case. Recently, Jesuit-run Saint Louis University experienced its own crisis of identity when well-loved basketball coach Rick Majerus publicly championed pro-abortion causes at a Hillary Rodham Clinton rally in the city. Of course, Coach Majerus has the freedom of speech to applaud whatever cause he desires. However, because he works for a Catholic university, he has a responsibility to not publicly demean the mission and beliefs of that organization. By disagreeing with the Catholic Church on core matters of faith and morals, Coach Majerus is blocking the achievement of the purpose of St. Louis University’s existence.

Archbishop Burke’s demand for disciplinary action against Coach Majerus comes from a deep understanding of Catholic Church law and the need for unity in all fields. Majerus answered: “These beliefs are ingrained in me. My First Amendment right to free speech supersedes anything that the archbishop would order me to do.” Coach Majerus errs. When he accepted the opportunity to coach basketball at a Catholic institution, he agreed to behave in a way befitting a representative of that institution. That being said, the Catholic Church’s teaching on abortion is quite clear, and Coach Majerus betrayed the trust placed in him.

Without the liberty to decide who represents its views and who disperses its message to the public, a religious institution or organization lays bare its most vulnerable aspect and welcomes destruction from within. Separation of church and state does not mean that religious institutions may not function within a state, nor does it mean that they cannot decide whom they hire. Religious liberty demands that an institution be free to decide its own end, and to choose its representatives. 

Joseph Kosten acted as an Acton Rome office intern while pursuing a Masters and Doctorate in Social Communications at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross.