DEFENDING OUR FIRST FREEDOM
By Monsignor JOSÉ H. GOMEZ, Archbishop of Los Angeles
We are slowly losing our sense of religious liberty in America.
Our government and courts no longer seem to value the public role of religion or recognize religious freedom as a basic human right.
Scholars like Harvard’s Mary Ann Glendon and Michael Sandel have observed that the right to hold and express religious beliefs is nowadays treated as only one of many private lifestyle options that a person can choose from.
These trends are the reason the U.S. Catholic bishops recently established a new Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty.
My brother bishops and I are deeply concerned that our individual liberty and the Church’s freedom to carry out her mission are threatened today as they never have been before in our country’s history.
We have always believed as Catholics that we serve our country the best as citizens when we are trying to be totally faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ and his Church.
And we have always worked, as individuals and as a Church, to help government — at all levels — to provide vital social services, education and health care.
But lately, this is becoming harder for us to do.
Just last week, the federal government declined a grant request from the U.S. bishop’s Migration and Refugee Services agency.
We are not really sure why. No reason was given. Our agency has been working well with the government since 2006 to help thousands of women and children who are victims of human trafficking.
Recently, the government had been demanding that our agency provide abortions, contraception and sterilizations for the women we serve.
We hope the decision to deny our application was not because we refused to provide these services that are unnecessary and violate our religious principles.
In another case, the federal government is trying to force private employers to provide insurance coverage for sterilizations and contraception, including for medications that cause abortions.
This, of course, would violate the consciences of Catholic business owners and also undermine the religious independence of Church employers.
These are only a few examples of the many attempts being made to coerce Catholics to submit to social policies and practices that we consider to be contrary to our religious identity.
Church adoption and foster-care ministries have had to shut down rather than submit to government demands that they place children with same-sex couples or provide benefits for same-sex employees.
The U.S. Justice Department went on record this summer saying that those who defend the traditional definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman are motivated by prejudice.
Of course, that is our Catholic belief, rooted in the Scriptures. But scholars like Princeton’s Robbie George warn that this belief might now be labeled as a form of bigotry and that we could face new challenges to our liberties.
My brother bishops and I share those concerns. We are also concerned about the signals the federal government is sending in a case now before the U.S. Supreme Court, Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC.
Experts say that if the government prevails, it will have broad new powers to regulate the inner workings of Church institutions — even to possibly interfere in areas of Church practice and doctrine.
As believers, we need to defend our liberties — for the good of the Church and the good of our country.
Religious liberty has always been “the first freedom” in our Bill of Rights and in our national identity.
Our country’s founders recognized that religious freedom is a right endowed by God, not a privilege granted by government. They knew that what God has given no court, no legislature, no individual can take away.
Our first freedom has always included the Church’s God-given liberty to carry out her mission.
The Church’s liberty has always included her right to establish hospitals, schools, charities and media outlets — and to run them as she deems necessary according to her mission. Our liberty has always included the Church’s right to engage in the public square to help shape our nation’s moral and social fabric.
America’s founders understood that our democracy depends on Americans being moral and virtuous. They knew the best guarantee for this is a civil society in which individuals and religious institutions were free to live according to their values and principles.
We need to help our leaders today rediscover the wisdom of America’s founding. At stake are not only our liberties but also the identity and character of our democracy.
Let’s pray hard for one another this week. And let’s ask Mary our Blessed Mother to give us the courage to defend religious liberty, our first freedom. VN
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