Religious freedom has won some key battles recently

Catholic doctrine has been in the news a lot lately.

Last Tuesday, the Senate voted 55-43 to confirm Catholic nominee Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit. Two days later, the Student Activities Commission at Georgetown University voted 8-4 not to de-recognize student group Love Saxa for its Catholic views of marriage.

Normally, the confirmation of a judge and the existence of a religious student group at a Catholic university would hardly seem worthy of breaking the internet, what with the latest Hollywood scandals and the Kardashians to keep up with.

But Barrett and Love Saxa brought Catholic doctrine to the forefront — albeit with assists from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Georgetown student Jasmin Ouseph.

Barrett is not notably distinct from the other eminently qualified men and women who serve on the bench. She earned her law degree from Notre Dame Law School, clerked on the D.C. Circuit and for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, practiced law in D.C., and then entered academia and became a professor of law. As Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley said last Monday, “Professor Barrett is a brilliant legal scholar who has earned the respect of colleagues and students from across the political spectrum.”

And yet, the confirmation vote was narrow, with all but three Democrats opposing Barrett. To understand why, look no further than Sen. Feinstein’s rebuke of Barrett’s faith during her confirmation hearing, in which she told the Catholic Barrett that “the dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern.”

Sen. Feinstein’s words grabbed the headlines (and generated some creative memes), but she wasn’t the only one to question Barrett’s religious beliefs and affiliations. Sen. Richard Durbin asked Barrett if she was an “orthodox Catholic,” and Sen. Al Franken irresponsibly parroted discredited charges from the Southern Poverty Law Center in attacking Barrett’s decision to speak at the Blackstone Legal Fellowship program.

Consequently, despite her stellar credentials, Barrett’s path to the bench was impeded due to her Catholic faith and her decision to speak at an event sponsored by a leading defender of religious liberty. Sen. James Lankford summarized the problem with this mindset:

We resolved [this issue] in Article VI of the Constitution, where it says there’s no religious test for any officer of the United States.… Our constitutional protection is the free exercise of your religion. Not just that you can have a faith, but you can both have a faith and live your faith according to your own principles….This should be a settled issue for us, not a decisive one. We are a diverse nation—diverse in backgrounds, perspectives, attitudes, and yes, diverse in faith.

Love Saxa, the student organization at Georgetown University, exists to “cultivat[e] a proper understanding of sex, gender, marriage, and family among Georgetown students.” The group’s positions are consistent with Catholic doctrine, so its presence on campus should hardly be fraught with controversy. And yet, an oped by the group’s president, Amelia Irvine, in Georgetown’s student newspaper, The Hoya, ignited a firestorm.

Irvine’s piece, “Confessions of a College Virgin,” set forth Love Saxa’s commitment to “healthy relationships and sexual integrity” and confirmed the group’s belief that marriage is the union of one man and one woman. In response, student Jasmin Ouseph filed a complaint with the Student Activities Commission, alleging that interactions with Love Saxa members had induced panic attacks. She labeled the group’s religious views as “violent…dehumanizing…hateful, and…dangerous” “rhetoric.” The Hoya’s editorial board also urged the commission to de-recognize Love Saxa.

Against this backdrop, and following a “marathon hearing” on Oct. 30, the commission voted 8-4 not to punish Love Saxa for its Catholic views.

The attacks on Amy Barrett and Love Saxa are not an aberration, but rather the continuation of a systematic assault on faith in the public square, whether in the realm of academia, politics, business, or even within the church itself. The examples are plentiful.

Government officials in Massachusetts and Iowa sought to use state law to prohibit churches from operating in accordance with their beliefs. Missouri officials tried to exclude a Missouri preschool operated by a church from participating in a state grant program aimed at making playgrounds safer. A geologist was temporarily barred from conducting research in the Grand Canyon because of his faith. A USDA official threatened to shut down a family-owned meatpacking business if the owner kept a religious article in his company’s breakroom.

The city of East Lansing kicked an organic farmer out of the local farmer’s market because of his religious views on marriage. And just weeks from now, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider the fate of Jack Phillips, a Denver-area cake artist who declined to design a custom cake to celebrate a same-sex marriage because of his religious view about marriage.

Despite the waves of opposition to religious liberty, a persistent undercurrent remains: defenders of expressive and religious freedom, who are unwilling to sacrifice the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of all for the sake of an “equality scorecard” or badge of approval from proponents of so-called “tolerance.” And recent events suggest the tide may be turning.

In some cases, courts are awarding victories to the defenders of expressive and religious freedom. The churches in Massachusetts and Iowa are now free to operate consistent with their beliefs. This spring, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that excluding the Missouri preschool from “a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified,” based on its religious character, was “odious to our Constitution.” The Michigan farmer won an injunction allowing him to return to the farmer’s market while his case continues in the courts.

In other cases, government officials are intervening. The U.S. Department of Agriculture pledged to protect the First Amendment rights of businesses like the meatpacking company. The National Park Service finally agreed to issue the geologist a permit for his research.

And in Jack’s case, the United States, 20 states, 86 members of Congress, hundreds of creative professionals, and many others have filed amicus briefs with the high court strongly supporting Jack’s artistic and religious freedom.

These events teach us that challenges to religious freedom are certain to continue. But they also demonstrate that freedom’s future is determined not by the attacks on liberty, but by the response to those attacks. In light of that, we should hope that the “dogma” will continue to live loudly within defenders of religious freedom.

James Gottry is legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom.

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