New foreign policy on gay rights seen as threat to religious liberty

Christine Williams

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QUINCY, Mass. -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's announcement in December that respect for gay rights is now a factor in the Obama administration's foreign policy decisions is on a collision course with religious freedom, said an official with the Becket Fund.

"This administration clearly wants to elevate certain rights over others. And unfortunately it seems that religious freedom is never prioritized in their foreign policy as it should be," Tina Ramirez told The Anchor, newspaper of the Fall River Diocese.

Ramirez is director of government and international relations for the Becket Fund, which seeks to protect the free expression all faiths.

On Dec. 6, Clinton announced to U.N. diplomats in Geneva that U.S. agencies engaged abroad have been instructed to "combat the criminalization" of the "status or conduct" of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people.

President Barack Obama, in a memo released later the same day, called ending discrimination against this group of people central to the U.S. commitment to promoting human rights. This follows an announcement by the administration last summer that it supports legislation to repeal the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

In her speech, Clinton said that all people deserve to be treated with dignity "no matter whom they love" and said that those who defend human rights are "on the right side of history."

"Gay rights are human rights," she said.

She also announced the formation of the $3 million Global Equality Fund that will help groups "record facts so that they can target their advocacy, learn how to use the law as a tool, manage their budgets, train their staffs and forge partnerships with women's organizations and other human rights groups."

Clinton focused her half-hour speech on violent abuses against homosexuals, but she did not elaborate on what else would be considered discrimination. A senior State Department official said later in a briefing that about 80 countries still criminalize the status and/or conduct of gay, lesbian bisexual and transgendered people.

The Catholic church teaches that the dignity of homosexual individuals must be respected as well as their rights as people, such as the right to employment and freedom from unjust discrimination.

But the church also upholds the sanctity of traditional marriage as being only between one man and one woman. The church also teaches that any sexual activity outside of marriage is sinful. Its opposition to same-sex marriages is considered by supporters of such marriages to be discrimination.

Timothy Herrmann, the U.N. representative for the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute in New York, told The Anchor that the resolution to support gay rights initiatives abroad represents a fundamental change in U.S. foreign policy.

A senior State Department official told reporters the policy just builds on what the agency is already doing but what is new is that it applies to all federal agencies abroad.

Herrmann said that by focusing on violence against homosexuals, Clinton and Obama's "real intention is to create a set of human rights that don't need to be created because everybody, by the nature of being a human, already has those rights. ... What we are dealing with fundamentally is the imposition of a certain type of behavior on society."

In the United States, Catholic leaders have raised a number of concerns in recent months about the effect on religious liberty of state action on same-sex marriage or civil unions.

In Illinois, Catholic Charities agencies in Illinois have been "driven out of the adoption and foster care business," because they would not place children with same-sex couples. In New York state, some county clerks are facing legal action for refusing to participate in same-sex unions.

Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., chairman of the bishops' new Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, told a House subcommittee In October that he found it "troubling" when opposition to same-sex marriage "is portrayed as bigotry" and when some try to draw a "parallel between racial discrimination and (opposition to) same-gender marriage."

Abroad, religious speech about homosexuality has been prosecuted as hate speech.

"It is important to make sure that pastors who have beliefs about homosexuality are able to express those in the context of their ministry," Ramirez said.

She said of the new foreign policy, "There's clearly an agenda, and there's no real clarity of where the lines will be drawn to protect conscience rights. That's the main concern. We do have a priority of protecting religious freedom."

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