Many ask themselves why Religious Liberty is important. After all, we live in a country where Catholics and Christians are not persecuted or threatened because of their religious beliefs. And, isn’t that liberty guaranteed in our constitutional rights? Although in the United States we enjoy this and other protections written in the Constitution, it is important to protect that right that goes beyond gathering in churches to pray.
During the Fortnight for Freedom, June 21- July 4, we will have the opportunity to participate in events and activities organized by local parishes and dioceses in support of this essential freedom.
Religious liberty has to do with the right of churches, religious organizations and groups to help the sick and the needy without asking what religion they practice or whether they live legally in the country; and not having to deny them help because of those or other reasons. We must remember that religious liberty is also the ability to contribute to the common good of others without having to compromise one’s religious beliefs.
An example that impacts many recent immigrants relates to immigration laws recently approved by some states. Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Utah have passed laws that prohibit “harboring” of undocumented immigrants. What those laws consider “harboring” is what the church considers Christian charity and pastoral care. Some examples that could fall under those categories are: to invite or transport undocumented immigrants to Mass, or to invite them to join rehabilitation groups, prayer groups or even marriage preparation gatherings. Those laws affect religious liberty because they prohibit and criminalize some acts of faith and pastoral care.
Here is another example. Human trafficking is a field where the Catholic Church has worked hard, but its actions were curtailed because of its religious beliefs. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) has helped children and adults who have been victims of human trafficking. Most come from Mexico, Thailand, India and Haiti; they have been trafficked on farms, in hotels and casinos, in private homes, in spas, for forced labor or sexual exploitation.
However, in spite of the outstanding work that MRS did for years, administering contract services for victims, in 2011, the federal government changed its contract specifications to require MRS to provide or refer the victims they helped for contraceptive and abortion “services” in violation of Catholic teaching. As a result, MRS was disqualified from a government contract because of its religious beliefs.
Religious liberty also influences other areas of our lives, for example, the need to protect marriage as a sacrament between one man and one woman. In Illinois, Boston, San Francisco and Washington adoption programs administered by Catholic Charities were eliminated because those organizations would not violate their religious beliefs by placing children in homes with same-sex couples or unmarried opposite sex couples.
Finally, the HHS mandate coerces religious organizations and business owners to act against their religious values by providing access to contraceptives, sterilizations and abortion-inducing drugs for their employees. This issue is not about whether women have the right to use those methods; it is about a government regulation that forces people to act against their values and religious beliefs.
Religious liberty is an essential freedom in our lives. It’s important to join the bishops’ call to defend it and cherish it.