Religious Freedom

Last summer the bishops of the United States declared the first “Fortnight for Freedom.” This is a 14-day period of prayer and sacrifice leading up to and including Independence Day. The idea behind this time of prayer is that we would ask God to protect our religious liberty, which in the present age seems vulnerable for a variety of reasons.

People will often speak about the separation of church and state. You might be quite familiar with the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, which reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” In one sweeping amendment (the first one listed in the Bill of rights), the Constitutional Convention stated for the record that the government they were creating would have no right whatsoever to abridge the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, the freedom of peaceful assembly, or the freedom to petition the government. But before listing those four freedoms, the members of the Constitutional Convention mentioned religion.

The First Amendment says that Congress may not establish a religion. That means no federal religion would be permitted. Most of the colonists in the fledgling U.S. were well acquainted with established religions, such as the Church of England. Congress would not be allowed to establish any religion in the future, and it has not. (State legislatures were not considered prohibited from establishing an official religion; Massachusetts recognized Congregationalism as a state religion for years, as I have heard many times.) In the next part of the same clause, the amendment declared that Congress cannot prohibit the free exercise of religion, and that is the matter at hand.

By the time you read this, the Freedom Forum planned by the Archdiocese and held at our parish on Saturday, June 22 will already have concluded. It was called to address topics such as, “What is religious freedom?” “What is the difference between freedom to worship and freedom to practice religion?” “Why is there a separation of church and state?” “How do we publically live our faith?” These are important matters, as from time to time President Obama has referred to “freedom of worship” instead of “freedom of religion.” I certainly hope that at no point will our freedom to go to church and worship behind closed doors be threatened. But we have to understand that practicing our faith means much more than what we do within the walls of a church. It means making our beliefs part of our daily lives.

Last month, Archbishop Nienstedt wrote to us priests to ask us to participate in the Fortnight for Freedom events. He prefaced this with these words: “As you are aware, last year the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a mandate under the Affordable Care Act that requires all employer health plans to provide free of charge contraceptives, sterilizations and abortion-inducing drugs, regardless of any moral or religious objections. Our struggle for religious liberty has taken on a new urgency. This mandate will be enforced against nonprofit Catholic schools and universities, charities, and health care institutions beginning August 1. This has very serious implications for the Church’s ability to exercise her mission and ministry.”

A Mass will be celebrated at the Cathedral on June 29, followed by a holy hour for religious freedom. I hope you will check the Catholic Spirit newspaper for details. On that Saturday and Sunday, parishioners will be invited to participate in a postcard campaign called “Project Life and Liberty.” If you wish, you will be able to take a sheet of three perforated postcards and address one to each of your U.S. senators and to your representative in the U.S. House of Representatives to express your concern about the HHS mandate. I hope you will consider taking part in these opportunities associated with the Fortnight for Freedom.

Having written about the Constitution, I should also mention the Declaration of Independence, which was signed on July 4, 1776, giving us, among many other things, the date of our best known national holiday. The Declaration’s last lines might not be so well known as its opening lines, so I would like to reprint them here.  After listing the grievances the colonists had against the King of Great Britain, the Declaration says the following:

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

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