Threats to Religious Freedom Harm More Than Religion

Let’s start with a pleasant and uplifting memory.

It’s 1954 in Kansas City, Missouri. The bishop of that diocese, Edwin V. O’Hara, and a group of wonderful women religious, the Maryknoll Sisters, are worried: In their city, there is no proper hospital care for black patients, nor any medical facility that welcomes a black physician. Not only does one not exist; to even open one or administer one such hospital would be contrary to the law of the day.

But the consciences of the bishop and the sisters were rattled. Government regulation or not, they claim that their faith calls them to heal, in the name of Jesus, and not to exclude anybody.

Thus, they opened—to protest and threat of legal action—Queen of the World Hospital, welcoming patients and physicians of all races and economic background.

The protests and legal action did not succeed in stopping them.

That’s our faith at its best, serving those in need.

That’s America at its best, allowing a deeply committed religious group to freely follow their faith and conscience without government intrusion.

Fast forward to 2011 with some facts not so pleasant and inspirational:

For five acclaimed years, the Migration and Refugee Services of the Catholic bishops has received a government grant assisting close to 3,000 victims of human trafficking rebuild their lives after escaping bondage, to obtain food, clothing, safety and health care. All agreed the Church provided this service lovingly and effectively.

No more. Just last month, the government funds were denied. While no convincing reason has yet to be given, the chilling warning seems clear: if you don’t offer “reproductive services”—abortion, contraception, sterilization—you will no longer get grants from Health and Human Services. Government regulation would now require a faith-based group to violate its conscience.

The intrusion does not stop here. The same Health and Human Services has mandated that most Catholic employers, including hospitals, charities and universities, add the same such “services” in their health plans.

The threat to religious freedom goes on: Catholic Relief Services, the renowned international agency bringing medicine, food, shelter and education to the hungry and stricken of the world, is learning that its ability to partner with the foreign aid programs of our government is being compromised because they refuse to violate their consciences in providing such “services.”

In Alabama, the state lectured the churches and synagogues that they were not to serve “illegals” in their charitable and educational outreach. When people of faith pleaded that such a restriction violated the basic principles of their conscience, and brought their concerns to court, they lost.

In at least two states and our nation’s capital, Catholic agencies long heralded for providing the most professional adoption services are closing up, since the state is coercing them to place children with same-sex couples, something people of faith respond they are unable to do.

And just last week, the government argued before the Supreme Court for the effective gutting of the longstanding “ministerial exception” that allows religious bodies to hire and fire ministerial employees without government interference. This extreme position has drawn criticism from nearly every major religious organization in the country, from liberal to conservative, from the National Council of Churches to the National Association of Evangelicals, all of whom fear that their churches could be the next targets of an intrusive Uncle Sam.

We bishops—and a growing number of pastors and leaders of other creeds—are very worried.

That the right to the free exercise of religion is listed as the first in our Bill of Rights is itself eloquent testimony to its pivotal place in the foundation of our Republic.

Today, though, Freedom of Religion is being reduced to a “freedom of worship,” a personal hobby on one’s Sabbath, tolerated as long as the values expressed in that hour of worship have no impact at all in society.

Such a view is, of course, contrary to religion itself, which hardly looks at faith as anything but a normative influence on one’s life, having a defining sway in how one dreams, plans, works, serves, and even votes.

Such a reductionist view also happens to be contrary to the genius of the American experiment, that America does not so much just tolerate a properly-curbed-and-leashed-religion as much as the nation needs and depends upon a vigorous free exercise of religion.

In fact, America’s best moments have come from a nation where religion and faith have a respected place.

Historians will tell us that our most exalted moments, such as the abolition of slavery, the peace movement, opposition to world tyranny, the pro-life movement, the civil rights crusade, and, for that matter, even the Revolution itself, have been expressions of faith, unfettered by or even proscribed by government.

It was not some bishop but a young Frenchman touring America, Alexis de Tocqueville, who remarked, “Despotism can do without faith, but liberty cannot…”

My fears about an aggressive erosion of religious freedom rise not only from my desire to defend the faith I love, but to preserve the country I love.

The restriction of religious liberty not only inhibits the practice of faith, but has dire consequences for our society. Faith provides a foundation for the dignity of the human person, representative government, the balance of power, and the virtue and civility essential to a vibrant commonwealth.

Washington himself suggested in his Farewell Address that “religion and morality” were the “indispensable supports” of our country, and warned that the new nation should “with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.”

By temperament, and by training as an historian, I usually avoid the word crisis.

But I use the word purposefully here to describe a genuine crisis, as certain well-placed, well-financed people, with a misplaced zeal they usually attribute to the religious people they enjoy caricaturing, seem set on a roll-back of the freedom of religion at the heart of this country.

Daily do we Americans thank God for the freedom of religion at the heart of the inalienable rights our country was providentially founded to protect. These prayers of praise are even more fervent as we read every day of attacks on fragile religious minorities in distant corners of the world. Our sense of gratitude and pride as citizens of a nation that respects religious liberty is high.

But, never can we take this freedom for granted…