Crippling First Freedom

Editorial for the Fortnight for Freedom

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In a new pastoral letter — released as the Archdiocese of Washington continues to fight two separate laws that restrict its religious freedom — Cardinal Donald Wuerl confirmed that our political culture is losing patience with the inconvenient truths of the Catholic faith.

“Here in the United States ... priests, professors and others on college campuses have already been threatened with disciplinary action for expressing Catholic teaching,” Cardinal Wuerl noted, citing just one example from a long list of disturbing attacks on free-exercise rights.

In 2012, the U.S. bishops, led by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, warned that religious freedom was under threat at home and abroad.

In the United States, the Health and Human Services’ contraceptive mandate marked a more hostile climate for employers who refused to comply with a federal rule that forced them to violate their religious beliefs by providing co-pay-free abortion-inducing drugs, among other provisions.

Once accused of being unnecessarily divisive — even partisan — Church leaders are now criticized for using the issue of religious liberty as a shield for discrimination.

The Hobby Lobby victory in 2014 confirmed the vital importance of taking unified action in defense of religious liberty and refusing to leave anyone — religious nonprofit or family business, school or individual believer — unprotected.

We know now that our elected government officials cannot be trusted to preserve our religious freedom. And earlier this year, as we witnessed the lightning attack on Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, we saw that this cause is losing bipartisan support and that some in corporate America have aligned themselves with those who smeared Indiana’s law as an attempt to shield discrimination against same-sex couples.

Such lessons bear repeating as we await the high court’s ruling this month on the constitutionality of same-sex “marriage.”

But even as we study the shifting politics of this era, we also need time for extended prayer and reflection, and the fourth annual “Fortnight for Freedom” is well-timed for this purpose.

The fortnight celebrates our God-given right to live our religion and fortifies our efforts to transmit this fundamental right to the next generation of Americans, who are shaped and molded by an increasingly secular culture.

Scheduled, as always, from June 21-July 4, the 2015 fortnight celebrates the “Freedom to Bear Witness” — a right that shields the Church’s ministries, but also speech from the pulpit and a range of evangelization and advocacy activities in the public square. This should be a time to celebrate the “first freedom,” but also an opportunity to prayerfully examine what our parishes, schools and families are doing to explain the importance of legal protections that defend our right and desire to love God and serve others in his name.

But for all the powerful interests that now view the robust practice of religious freedom as a threat to sexual rights, we should never forget that this vital cause still resonates in the hearts of men and women in this land and around the world.

John Garvey, a constitutional scholar and the president of The Catholic University of America, points to the deep wellspring of respect for religious liberty and conscience rights in his essay “Religious Liberty and the Practice of Charity.”  The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution “rests on a certain understanding of God and human nature. God, out of love for us, made us for himself and in his image. It is because we have that end and that nature that we need a right to religious liberty.”

Next year, when the Register marks the fifth annual Fortnight for Freedom, we may be celebrating another victory before the Supreme Court, if it rules in favor of one of the many Catholic nonprofits that have filed legal challenges to the HHS mandate. The Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) also sued the government over the mandate; the Register is a service of EWTN.  But in 2016, it is just as likely that we could face a new threat to religious liberty, possibly in the form of federal protections for people dealing with gender-identity issues. In such cases, an individual no longer identifies with his or her male or female biology and views him or herself as a member of the opposite sex.

“The way to think about potential gender-identity issues is this: Anywhere you have assumed man/woman, male/female, mother/father distinctions you will have to re-evaluate them and see if they conflict with emerging gender-identity protections,” Matthew Kacsmaryk, the Liberty Institute’s deputy general counsel, told the Register.

How would legal protections, if enacted in the future, create problems for a Catholic charity? Kacsmaryk, who previously served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the northern district of Texas, outlined one potential flashpoint: a Catholic shelter for the homeless that segregates men and women and receives government funds.

This window into the possible challenges that lie ahead must bring us to prayer, and we surely will continue to pursue legal and legislative remedies as needed. But that path is only part of the solution.

“The most important thing we can do to secure religious freedom in our society is to convince our fellow citizens of the truth of the assumptions it rests upon,” wrote Garvey. “If someone does not believe in a loving God, he is not likely to rank serving God above other worthy ends.”

How can an ordinary Catholic accomplish this mission?

“The ‘argument’ for these assumptions is not a syllogism, but a demonstration. We show God’s image, and our likeness to him, through the practice of charity,” Garvey concluded. “By serving others out of a love grounded in faith, we witness to the ability of the human person to devote himself freely to God and to participate in the divine life of love.”