Missouri's measure passed overwhelmingly (82.8 percent) in August, but it has been controversial because of language not included on the actual ballot that says "no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs." Critics say that provision creates a loophole for students who simply wish to evade an unwanted assignment.
"Many of these measures are misleading and cast as a response to some mythical war on religion," says Daniel Mach, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. "Religious liberty was alive and well in Missouri before this amendment. There was simply no need to change the state constitution and now the state has opened the door to official religious favoritism and the nearly boundless rights of students to refuse assignments on religious grounds."
In November, Florida will vote on a constitutional amendment that would prohibit discrimination against individuals and institutions on the basis of religious beliefs and remove a longstanding ban on public funding "in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution."
Supporters argue that the amendment is necessary to ensure that social service organizations with religious affiliations can compete on an equal footing with other organizations providing similar services.
They point to an ongoing legal challenge to a faith-based prisoner re-entry program that they say serves an important purpose and is just one option among many for ex-convicts in need of support. "They are overt in their faith and that's why they're doing the prisoner re-entry," Schultz says, "but they're not saying, 'if you want to go through our program, you have to go to Sunday school.' If they were, that would be a very, very different thing."
Opponents argue that the amendment is a misleading attempt to pave the legal groundwork for parochial school vouchers and is unnecessary because in practice faith-based organizations already receive government funding to provide public services. "This is just a starting point of a campaign to get more funding into private religious schools and religious social services," says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
All of these issues are familiar to Cardinal Dolan and the organization he leads, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Many Catholics and religious conservatives were irked by the Obama administration's initial decision this spring requiring faith-based nonprofits whose teachings object to contraception to offer free birth control coverage to their employees. A compromise now requires insurance companies, rather than employers, to provide the coverage, but many religious liberty advocates still object to the requirement on the grounds that insurers will end up passing the costs along to employers anyway.
In response to the controversy, the Conference of Catholic Bishops released a detailed statement claiming that religious liberty is under attack and urging conscientious Catholics to disobey any "unjust laws."
The list of grievances goes far beyond the contraception mandate. In Alabama, the state's immigration law forbids the "harboring" of undocumented immigrants. The Catholic Church complains that this forbids "what the Church deems Christian charity and pastoral care to those immigrants."
Catholic Charities providing foster care and adoption services in Illinois, D.C., Boston and San Francisco have been driven out of business through license revocations or government contract suspensions after they refused to place children with same-sex couples or unmarried opposite-sex couples who cohabitate.
All these issues are complicated by the increasing diversity of religious perspectives on issues such as contraception, abortion and gay marriage. Religious institutions are trying to work out the differences among themselves at the same time as they grapple with the way their positions match broader public policies. A group called Catholics for Choice held panels at the national political conventions to bring attention to alternative interpretations of religious liberty.
"We believe that religious liberty is about protecting each of us making our own decisions based on our own conscious and religious beliefs," says Sara Hutchinson, domestic program director of Catholics for Choice. The bishops, she says, are trying to use the First Amendment as an excuse to codify their own theologies and ideologies. "It doesn't say 'the free exercise of what the bishops tell you your religion is,'" she says.