Massachusetts became the battleground earlier this month for a principle that's as old as Massachusetts itself: religious freedom.
On March 10, Catholic Charities in Boston announced that it would stop all of its adoption-placement work. The reason? They don't want to be in the gay-adoption business, but the government tells them they must be.
According to Catholic Charities, their adoption programs have placed 720 children in permanent homes over the course of the past two decades. Of those, 13 children were placed with same-sex families.
Not everyone -- even on the Catholic Charities' board -- agreed with the adoption-pullout announcement. But for the church in Boston, which has been hurting badly in the moral-authority department since a wave of scandals hit it in 2001, not brokering adoptions involving same-sex couples makes a good deal of sense. It's consistent with a church that's first priority should be getting back to basics -- to practice what it preaches and to actually teach what it believes. Whether leaders run with the opportunity is an open question.
But the issue in the Bay State is much more basic than what the Catholic Church teaches, and is of broad-church concern. When it comes to the politics, it's not even as controversial as the "gay adoption" headlines imply. Because the political issue isn't about adoption. (In fact, if Catholic Charities no longer places any children with any gay couples, but more than 50 other state-registered adoption agencies will.) It's bigger than that. It's about religious freedom. It's about the basic conscience rights English settlers arrived at Plymouth Rock in the 17th century in search of.
Mitt Romney, the Mormon governor of Massachusetts, gets that. Here's a case in Massachusetts of the "state interfering with the free practice of religion," as he's put it.
In response to the Catholic Charities blockbuster announcement, a governor's office press release explained that the governor would be issuing legislation to "authorize religious organizations to provide adoption services consistent with their beliefs by creating an exemption from the state's nondiscrimination laws."
Within days, Romney did just that, filing "An Act Protecting Religious Freedom." In a letter to legislators, the governor wrote, "It is a matter beyond dispute, and a prerequisite to the preservation of liberty, that government not dictate to religious institutions the moral principles by which they are to carry out their charitable and divine mission."
As the governor's luck would have it, this happens to be an issue we need national leadership on. As other states tackle similar conscience issues -- the mayor of San Francisco is currently at odds with the bishop there over gay adoption, too; the availability of abortion and contraception services at religious hospitals is a contentious issue that is neither new nor going away -- the religious-freedom principles at stake in the Massachusetts example go far beyond the Bay State.
It is not just about Catholic Charities in Boston. Matthew Spalding, director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. warns: "If religious institutions are forced by the new regime of laws to withdraw from the adoption business in order to preserve and protect their liberty and religious faith, what about marriage itself? What about the tax-exempt status, or free-speech protections, of religious institutions that advance teachings contrary to the new regime? I think we have entered a new phase of the battle, in which the larger implications of the heretofore abstract debate about marriage are becoming disturbingly clear."
That clear message has a lot of noise to compete with, however. Romney's bill, which is unlikely to go anywhere in the legislature, has been received by some media and gay activists as a "gay attack." But Romney shouldn't take that too personally. The Catholic Charities move to opt out of gay adoptions was greeted with a condemnation of its "ugly political agenda," too. (Perhaps there's a 2008 Catholic-Mormon conspiracy at work? Oliver Stone, call your office.)
The Massachusetts freedom fight provides a few opportunities: for Catholic Church leaders to shepherd; for a presidential aspirant to show more of what he's made of; and for a country where "tolerance" and "diversity" are not only overused buzzwords, but something of a civic gospel, it's an opportunity to define what tolerance means. For all of the above, old standbys should not give away to new moralisms.