When Catholics Fight Back

SB 360, also known as Senate Bill 360, a proposal requiring priests in California to break the sacramental seal of confession, was placed on hold by its sponsor, State Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), on 9 June, right before a hearing on the bill. For months before the vote, activists in California, across the nation, and even in Rome raised their voices against SB 360, securing a victory against this gross violation of religious liberty and Catholic practice. However, triumphant tones must be tempered: Hill has publicly stated his intention to re-propose this bill at a later time. There are thus important lessons to be learned from the activism that effectively blunted this anti-Catholic legislation, ones we would do well to understand as we brace for the next attack.

One of these lessons is the importance of passionate celerity. The grassroots campaign against SB 360 began quickly and intensely at many levels, which enabled it to spread into a movement that elicited the activism of religious liberty advocates — both inside and outside the Church — far and wide. Immediately after Hill introduced the bill in February, a number of important organizations mobilized to respond.

According to Kathleen Domingo, Senior Director Office of Life, Justice & Peace for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the Archdiocese recognized that a speedy response was necessary both to confront a “clear First Amendment violation,” and set “a precedent for other states,” especially after a state Senate vote in favor of SB 360 (30-2) on May 24th. The Archdiocese also got out the message via English and Spanish language Catholic radio stations, social media channels, and announcements in parishes throughout the state. “Mobilization of that kind, on such short notice, is unusual and forced our representatives to take notice,” explains Domingo.

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Andrew Rivas, Executive Director of the California Catholic Conference, meanwhile, arranged a meeting with Hill, both to explain the seal of confession and make known his organization’s willingness to strengthen mandatory reporter laws to protect children, as this was Hill’s claimed reason for proposing SB 360. Yet, Rivas notes, “It was obvious from that meeting that the senator had a very skewed image of the Church in terms of what he saw as the problem.”

At the national level, activists like Bill Donohue of The Catholic League also moved swiftly. “I dropped everything and moved with dispatch,” says Donohue, who recognized the dire threat posed by legal impositions upon a sacrament of the Church. Says Donohue: “I immediately sent out news releases, wrote about this issue in our monthly journal, Catalyst, did radio and TV interviews, posted articles about it online…” In contrast, argues Donohue, Hill allowed Catholics “too much time to mobilize our troops,” which heightened blowback against SB 360.

Another lesson is the need for a strong, unified response led by the Catholic hierarchy. Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez wrote a letter to all parishioners, asking for their spiritual and civic help, explains Domingo. After this episcopal call, the Archdiocese collected 140,000 signed letters that were delivered to Assembly members, especially members of the Public Safety Committee, who would be meeting on June 9th. “The most important player in this victory was Los Angeles Archbishop Gomez. Our role was ancillary,” says Donohue. After Rivas’ meeting with Hill, which gained little traction, Rivas informed the California bishops of its perilous condition. The bishops then prepared a strategy to oppose SB 360, such as this video from San Jose Bishop Cantu. “Within days I began to receive emails and phone calls from priests all around California wanting to help oppose the bill,” says Rivas. Meanwhile the Archdiocese’s website to counter SB 360, www.KeepTheSeal.com, acted as a hub for Catholics to contact their representatives.

The message quickly spread far beyond California, covered by such nationally-known Catholics as Vatican journalist John L. Allen Jr, national publications like First Things, and secular media outlets like USA Today. Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron’s YouTube video on SB 360 has been viewed almost 90,000 times. “National opposition to SB 360 was very helpful in mobilizing the faithful… Relevant Radio was an indispensable partner in telling the story,” acknowledges Domingo. Even the Holy See took notice: on July 1 the Vatican issued a document from the head of the Holy See’s highest court reaffirming the significance and inviolability of the confessional seal against state intrusion.

The third lesson gleaned from the from the successful action against this anti-Catholic legislation is the importance of garnering support from outside the Church, be it from fellow Christians or any persons whose beliefs or opinions intersect with Catholicism on issues like religious liberty. “What got our side jacked up was the prospect of having the government police the Catholic Church,” says Donohue, though this concern extended far beyond just Catholic organizations. James Sonne, director of Stanford University’s Religious Liberty Clinic, opposed the bill, which he called “constitutionally problematic because it singles out religious exercise for disfavorable treatment.” On July 8, Muslim, Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican, and Baptist faith leaders, as well as representatives from Eastern Catholic Rites and historic Black churches, delivered a signed statement to Senate committee members declaring that “we are all one with American Roman Catholics in condemning the attack on religious freedom that the current version of California Senate Bill 360 represents.”

Fourth and finally, educating the populace, both legislators and voters, about Catholicism, was also essential. As Archbishop Fulton Sheen so famously stated, “There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church.” Domingo explains that “we learned there was confusion over the sacrament itself—how it took place, what was involved, and what benefit it provided.” In conversations with legislators, Archdiocesan officials told stories of the many people affected by the sacrament — to include prisoners and gang members — that made a “significant impression on legislators and helped shift the conversation entirely.” Domingo continues:

Even people who are not religious can appreciate and support our nation’s firm belief in the Freedom of Religion. We found, again and again, that Catholics, legislators, and the general public believe that religion should not be legislated. There is no precedent for such action against any practice of religion in this country. One legislator declared, “I don’t want the government telling me how to practice my religion, and I don’t want them telling you how to practice yours.” That message proved very uniting and was at the heart of the joint declaration from leaders of other faiths.

The shelving of SB 360 should rightly be perceived as a victory for both the Catholic Church and for religious liberty…but it is only a temporary victory. Senator Hill has explicitly declared his intent to revisit this issue, declaring: “I have placed SB 360 on hold. The bill is on pause, it has not been withdrawn.” Donohue observes: “The senator’s decision was purely tactical and I believe he fully intends to try again next year to pass it.” Moreover, the Church and religious liberty advocates in recent years have experienced many losses, such as the forced closure of Catholic adoption agencies. Thus the latest news regarding SB 360 should be considered a temporary lull in the fighting, which will begin again in earnest in a short time. In order to preserve and secure our right to practice the Catholic faith in this great nation, we must learn from, and incorporate, the lessons of the SB 360 fight into the next of many upcoming battles.


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