MINOT, N.D. — A bipartisan group of lawmakers in Bismarck is looking to change an exemption to North Dakota's mandatory reporter law established for clergy.
Sen. Judy Lee, a Republican from Fargo, has introduced Senate Bill 2180. Co-sponsoring it are two other Republicans (though at least one, Rep. Mike Brandenburg of Edgeley, has withdrawn his support) as well as two Democrats.
As I noted in a previous column, the Catholic Church is fighting the legislation, characterizing it as some assault on religious liberty.
I've had others, particularly of the Catholic faith, contact me to make the same argument.
My friend (and former state senator) Joe Miller has a letter to the editor making that argument. "There must be a better way than to criminalize good and righteous traditions that saints and martyrs have died to protect," he writes. "Let us not take a path backward 627 years on religious liberty."
This line of reasoning makes me wince. Though I am not religious myself, I have a well-established history of supporting religious liberty. It saddens me to see the religious liberty argument invoked to protect people who are harming children.
Americans are already losing faith in their cultural institutions, from the government to the news media to organized religion. Arguing that religious leaders shouldn't be required to report child abuse because of "religious liberty" isn't going to help with that trend.
Many critics of this legislation have argued that I don't understand the importance of the seal of confession to Catholics (it's worth remembering that this exemption applies to all clergy). Miller, in his letter, references "627 years of religious liberty."
"To the millions of believers, the Catholic Church is the one true Church instituted by the Son of God, and the sacraments, including confession, were divinely instituted," another reader emailed last week.
This is unpersuasive. Humanity had many practices for very long periods of time before we decided we didn't want to do them anymore. The Catholics are no different. They've made changes over the centuries, including the Catholic Reformation and the Vatican II.
Why should this be any different?
If your religious or political beliefs require you to stay silent when a child is in harm's way it's time to change those beliefs.
Some have argued to me that the clergy would probably ignore this law if passed, which doesn't speak well for the morality of the clergy in general, or Catholic priests, specifically, the latter group having lost the moral high ground when it comes to protecting children given how their church engaged in a long-standing coverup of a child molestation epidemic of global proportions.
Others have argued that lawyers are not required to report on their clients, but that's not an apt comparison. We all have the right to legal counsel, but that is not an effective right if our legal counsel can be compelled to divulge what we tell them.
Doctors are mandatory reporters. Teachers and nurses and school counselors must report.
Why is the clergy so special?
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.