It is the Fourth of July and a day to reflect on Liberty, on Freedom. And yet many today have concerns that their freedom is being eroded by increasing and over-reaching governmental intrusion.
And, while as Catholics steeped in the moral vision of the Scriptures and Tradition we seek to balance individual rights and the common good, we do rightly have concerns that one of our most fundamental rights recognized in the very First Amendment is being threatened by an unprecedented mandate that we violate our consciences and surrender our religious liberty simply because the government demands it.
Note the language that the First Amendment “recognizes” our freedom to freely exercise our religion. For the State does not grant us this right, God does. It is among those rights the Declaration of Independence so nobly calls “unalienable” rights and says are endowed by our Creator.
Hence, in no way can our right to religious freedom be abridged simply because a president, a congress or a director of a government agency says so. They did not give us this liberty and they cannot take it away. We will not and cannot cede to man, what God has given.
And mind you, the HHS mandate is only the latest and boldest move of what has been a steady stream of threats eroding our religious liberty. These issues affect not only Catholics, but people of many religious backgrounds. However, the Catholic Church is particularly targeted and threatened because we have stood so vocally and firmly in opposition to many aspects of the cultural revolution in America such as Abortion, Embryonic Stem Cell research, euthanasia, the increasing “genocide” against the disabled via selective abortion and pernicious prenatal screening, the Gay rights agenda, Gay “marriage,” and so forth.
As the wider American culture continues to move away from Biblical teachings and Natural Law norms, our Catholic adherence to this age-old wisdom has come to be seen by many as obnoxious, and we are considered to be an influence which must be strongly withstood. Rather than understand our concerns as a principled stance rooted in Biblical norms that we cannot simply set aside, many, in the wider culture, have chosen to describe our stance as bigoted, reactionary, hateful, and broadly intolerant.
As such, many see the repudiation of our religious rights and liberty as “righteous” and as a vindication of their cultural agenda. But the rejoicing in some circles and the active attempt by some to suppress our religious liberty is short-sighted. For, if the Government can deny the liberty of one group, all groups are threatened. If the Government can attempt to legally force a large segment of the US population to act contrary to their conscience, no other segment is safe either.
The threat to religious liberty is both real and growing. To review the HHS Mandate issue note that, until now, federal law has never prevented Catholic institutions from providing for the needs of their employees with a health plan that is consistent with Catholic moral teachings. There were reasonable religious exemptions in place that have always been a respected tradition in the laws of this country as written.
However, under the HHS mandates, virtually all Catholic hospitals, elementary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, and charitable organizations would be required to provide coverage for sterilization procedures and contraception, including drugs that may induce abortions, unless they stop hiring and stop serving non-Catholics. The HHS mandate will attempt to force Catholic organizations and individual Catholics either to violate their conscience or risk serious penalties and fines. We cannot and will not comply.
Those who want to turn this into a debate about contraception are missing the point and are being deceived. Because, if the government can seek to compel in these matters offensive to long-standing Catholic teaching, it can just as easily come after what others consider sacred and right. Do not be deceived, this is about a serious threat to the First Amendment and to the religious liberty of all, not just Catholics, and not just the various churches, but against you, as an individual citizen as well. It is not just the Church that has religious liberty, YOU have religious liberty and no government or official has the right to prohibit the free exercise of your religious duties.
More than freedom of worship! Do not allow others to describe the First Amendment merely as the “freedom of worship.” It is far more. It is to able to freely exercise one’s religion. I am not a Catholic merely inside the church building. I am a Catholic at the supermarket, at the job, in the political arena, in the influence of public policy, and in the daily discourse that seeks to influence the thinking and behavior of my fellow citizens. We, as believers, have the same rights as any other citizens or groups to advocate and organize for causes and courses of action we see as helpful to this country. An essential part of the free exercise of our religious duty is to evangelize the culture and everyone who will listen. It is unacceptable to speak of religious liberty as merely the freedom to worship inside a Church building, it is far more.
Real and subtle – Please understand that the threats to our religious Liberty are very real, but also, at times, subtle. For, beyond the HHS Mandate that is in the news, much of the erosion is carried out in incremental ways, hidden in the deeper details of legislation, and emerging from strict interpretations of various judges. As such, it requires the Church and other religious organizations to fight on multiple fronts in a wearying number of, often arcane but very significant, legal minutia.
At some level, the erosion of religious liberty is happening simply due to the repeated quality of the multiple and hostile legal maneuvers. The Church and other religious entities may win an individual battle in one case, only to have to face multiple appeals and similar battles in other jurisdictions.
Keeping the faithful organized and alert, and having the legal and financial resources in place to meet every challenge is difficult, and this is part of the erosive technique of the extreme secularists.
Here are just some recent examples of the kinds of cases and issues that emerge:
- In 2009 the Baltimore City Council passed a bill regulating the speech of pro-life pregnancy centers by requiring them to post a sign listing services they do not provide (abortion and contraception) or face a daily fine. Abortion clinics and other such pro-choice centers faced no similar requirement. (Montgomery County soon approved a similar regulation. The ordinance has been declared unconstitutional by a federal court but even though the Courts may overturn these sorts of laws, such legal actions place a huge time and financial burden on these charitable organizations and are a distraction from their mission.
- 600 Catholic hospitals are finding themselves under increased scrutiny since they provide care in accordance with Catholic religious beliefs. The American Civil Liberties Union has asked the federal government to investigate Catholic hospitals for declining to provide abortion and emergency contraception. The ACLU alleges that Catholic hospitals are thus violating federal laws by adhering to their religious beliefs.
- The District of Columbia Government informed Catholic Charities that it would no longer be an eligible foster care and adoption partner. since, as a Catholic organization, Catholic Charities was devoted to placing children in homes with both a mother and a father. Moreover, when District residents filed an appeal to bring the issue of marriage before voters, so that they could have a voice in the debate, their request was repeatedly denied by the D.C. Board of Elections.
- Last November the same thing happened in Illinois. The Church there would have been required to provide adoption services to same-sex couples, based on a civil union law that had been passed. “The decision not to pursue further appeals was reached with great reluctance, but was necessitated by the fact that the State of Illinois made it financially impossible for Catholic agencies to continue to provide these services due to the legal cost of continuing the battle.
- There has also been a growing trend of government intrusion into the institutional and administrative life of the Church. One of the most disturbing examples of this was in 2009, when a bill was introduced in the Connecticut legislature that would have allowed the state of Connecticut to mandate the structure and organization of Catholic parishes (and only Catholic parishes; it applied to no other denominations). The measure, which ultimately failed, would have removed many administrative and pastoral responsibilities from the pastor and placed them instead in the hands of committees whose membership was defined by the state legislature. Here too, though we won, that such an intrusive principle could see the light of day was disturbing and to fight it cost the Church and Catholics a huge amount of time and money.
- Christians cannot speak publicly of their values? Medina Valley Independent School District, allows the class valedictorian to deliver a graduation address. The speech is written by the student and delivered in his or her own name as a personal reflection on what has helped them attain to their success and to give an encouraging word to fellow students. Last year, valedictorian, Angela Hildenbrand, a Bible-believing Christian, was valedictorian. Many knew that Angela would give thanks to God for blessing her work as a student, and that she might offer a prayer. Alleging that hearing a prayer would cause serious and irreparable harm, lawyers at “Americans United for the Separation of Church and State” (AUSCS) filed suit for an agnostic family. A federal judge….issued an order that no prayers could be offered, and also that Angela could not utter certain words in her speech, including the phrase “bow your heads” or the specific words “prayer” or “amen.” The reality is, the judge’s order, not a prayer Angela might offer in her speech, violated the First Amendment. A student is given the stage to speak about her values and priorities and to thank whomever she wishes for helping her succeed in school. Because she’s a private citizen (not a government agent), her speech is protected by the First Amendment Free Speech Clause. For government, (including a judge), to censor her private speech is unconstitutional. On June 4, the Fifth Circuit federal appeals court granted an emergency motion to reverse the district judge.
- Grants denied on Religious Grounds – In 2008 the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts brought suit against the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, seeking to eliminate a grant to programs that aid victims of human trafficking. Because Catholic programs don’t refer for abortions, the ACLU alleged that public support amounts to the establishment of religion. The Obama Justice Department defended the grant in court. But recently, HHS abruptly ended the funding.
- And again – It is now standard procedure in the Obama administration to deny funding to some Catholic programs based solely on their pro-life beliefs. 
- The latest and most pervasive threat is the New HHS law described above.
At the beginning of a New Year, please take these threats seriously. The extreme secularists presume they can simply wear us down by their repeated and numerous legal maneuverings. And, frankly, they may be right, unless people like you and me are vigilant and unflinching in supporting the Church as she battles these attacks.
And don’t be too sanguine about how we should be willing to endure persecution. We should, but that does not mean we simply surrender our Constitutional rights at the door and let secularists, and proponents of the cultural revolution isolate us. We have every Constitutional right that any American does and we cannot simply let the Church be silenced by either ignoring the problem or minimizing it.
There is an important Battle underway. Where do you stand? What will you do? To quote Martin Luther King Jr., “My daddy always said, ‘If you find a good fight, get in it.'” Well this is a good fight, a necessary fight. Get in it.
Here is the Parable of the Kosher Deli: