This Easter, the long fight for religious freedom continues

Philadelphia Daily News


Sometimes, God speaks softly. He shows you the magnificence of his glory in the mewling of a newborn child, eyes still closed against the world but lungs fully operational. Other times, his anger is announced with obvious thunder, like when he sends a plague of locusts down upon recalcitrant heads (or sends workers to repair potholes in the middle of rush hour). And then there are those moments when the good Lord credits us with all the intelligence we presumably have, and makes us connect the dots to find his message.

I started connecting them.

First, I posted something on Facebook, unconfirmed but troubling, about a priest who has been tortured by the Islamic State and was reportedly scheduled for a symbolic crucifixion on Good Friday, and asked my friends to pray for his soul. One (now former) Facebook friend suggested that Christians only care when their own are being killed but have no problem with the deaths of Kurds or other oppressed groups. He also accused me of not being very smart, which might have offended me except for the fact that this young whippersnapper had obsessively inbox-messaged me during law school asking for my assistance with writing projects. As we say in the profession, res ipsa chutzpah.

Then, I accompanied one of my asylum clients to a hearing in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, where we spent the better part of the day trying to convince an immigration officer that this young man from El Salvador qualified for refugee status. “Mario” had fled his native country one week after his cousin, with whom he used to walk to mass, was murdered by gang members. These criminals, who belonged to a group known as Mara Dieciocho or the 18th Street gang, didn’t like the influence the Catholic Church exerted in El Salvador.

They were hellbent on recruiting young men to join their ranks, and the priests and nuns in Mario’s hometown were equally intent on protecting these kids from a life of crime and certain death. It was a holy war, and the holy ones were losing.

When I was reviewing Mario’s paperwork before we went into the asylum interview, I noted the date – March 24, 2016 — at the top of the file, and a chill ran down my spine. Thirty-six years ago to the day, another Salvadoran had waged a mighty battle against the secular forces in his country, channeling the power of God to oppose the brutality of man. His name was Archbishop Oscar Romero, and he was recently beatified by Pope Francis, the first important step toward becoming a saint. Romero was assassinated at the altar while saying mass, after having openly criticized the government of El Salvador for persecuting the poor. Today, it is not the government but criminals whom the government cannot control who are threatening young men whose only crime is going to church.

On the train ride home from Lyndhurst, I was thinking about the interview and how fortunate I was to live in a country where I could openly walk into my preferred place of worship, kneel down in a pew and lift up my prayers to the Lord. I didn’t need to worry that, waiting for me in the entry way, was a tattooed man with a gun, ordering me to choose between my faith or my life.

But the sense of well-being and pride in this pluralistic nation dissipated as soon as I opened the newspaper and read about oral arguments before the Supreme Court in a case called Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged v. Burwell.

That case involves something more than just the narrow issue of whether the U.S. government, through bureaucratic rules, can force a religiously affiliated group to provide birth control to its employees in violation of fundamental religious principles.

It is, in other words, the demarcation between the demands of an expanding secular state and the integrity of a religious institution that simply wants to be left alone to do its magnificent work.

Suffice it to say that the death of Antonin Scalia, a man who understood the importance of religion in society, has the plaintiff nuns nervous that their refusal to engage in any act that makes them complicit in providing abortion-causing drugs will not be honored under either the First Amendment or the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

And that is almost as scary as what happened to Mario, walking on that dirt road to church with his cousin.

I pray for my tortured brothers and sisters abroad. I pray for my client, that he be looked upon with compassion and given refuge in this country. And I pray for the Little Sisters of the Poor, who stand for all of us against an over-reaching, overbearing government that values its version of health care over the fundamental rights of God’s humble servants.

I have connected the dots. The picture is frightening.

Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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