“No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of the civil authority.” (Thomas Jefferson, Letter to New London Methodist, 1809)
The news in recent months has been filled with alarming symptoms of the erosion of conscience rights and mounting threats to religious liberty under the direction or with the tacit approval of the highest levels of government. Would the Founding Fathers of this great nation approve of these “enterprises of the civil authority?” As citizens and people of faith we ought to be concerned. More than that, we ought to take action. As believers, our first response is prayer.
Once again the U.S. bishops have called for the observance of a Fortnight for Freedom, a 14-day period of prayer, reflection and action to promote a greater appreciation of religious liberty in the period leading up to Independence Day. In our own archdiocese, the Fortnight will begin with a Mass at 7 p.m., Friday, June 21, at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. I invite everyone to join us as we focus on real threats to our first and fundamental freedom and pray for the preservation and protection of our God-given right to religious liberty that has been wisely enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Why all this concern? Why now? There are both short-term and long-term reasons for continuing the Fortnight for Freedom after its initial observance last year. Short term, there is great concern because most religious organizations will be forced to comply with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ contraceptive mandate beginning on August 1 this year. In spite of religious and conscience objections, both religious organizations and private employers will be required by law to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives, abortion-inducing drugs and sterilization in their insurance programs. They will be required to pay for services to which they have grave moral and religious objections, or face crippling fines. This is an unwarranted and unacceptable level of government interference with religious liberty.
In addition to this immediate threat, there is also concern about far-ranging effects of the many recent legal attempts to redefine marriage. In either of two pending Supreme Court cases, the Court could strike down the states’ ability to protect the traditional definition of marriage between one man and one woman. The Supreme Court rulings, expected very soon, could in effect grant to same-sex unions equal status with marriage. The long-term effects on religious liberty and conscience rights of such court rulings will be far-reaching for our Catholic institutions, as well as for many other religious and social institutions.
Marriage is not merely a human institution. Like religious liberty, its origins are in the Creator’s plan that is ordered toward human flourishing and preserving God’s designs for human beings and human communities, beginning with the family. Marriage is not primarily about the love shared between adults, but is intended to safeguard the transmission of life and to provide the most favorable setting for the raising of children. Children deserve both a mother and a father and the stability of a loving family. Regrettably, that is not always the case, but it remains the ideal.
There has been an insistent and reductive tendency in our society toward equating religious liberty with the freedom to worship. Religious freedom certainly includes this freedom, but it is much more. It also includes the freedom for private individuals to live their faith in the workplace and in the public square and to advance the truths and values that flow from faith publicly. It includes the rights of religious institutions such as schools, health care facilities and social service organizations to carry on their activities in full accord with their faith convictions and without government interference. These are coming increasingly under assault.
The Fortnight for Freedom draws attention to these very real threats and calls us to cherish our rich heritage as Americans and Catholics. We welcome the opportunity to join with other churches and people of faith to celebrate and preserve our first and fundamental freedom.