Step Into Religious Freedom Week as Proud People of Faith

COMMENTARY: Just as the right to worship is central to religious freedom, so too is the ability to live out the faith in daily lives.

American flag waves in the wind outside St Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan, New York.
American flag waves in the wind outside St Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan, New York. (photo: Rolf E Stuaerk / Shutterstock)

The Catholic Church in the United States has always had a knack for responding not just to the needs of the faithful but of society at large.

Consider, for example, the U.S. bishops’ Religious Freedom Week, running from June 22-29. By asking Catholics across the country to promote and protect religious freedom here at home and abroad, the Church is championing individual freedom and the common good.

And never more so than now. The focus of this year’s Religious Freedom Week is a subject that desperately needs addressing.

Catholics are being asked to consider the importance of sacred spaces. Why? Because they are under threat.

“The very nature of a sacred space is that it is set apart from other spaces as a place to seek communion with the divine and thus should be treated with respect,” the bishops remind us. “There is no greater threat to religious liberty than for one’s house of worship to become a place of danger, and the country sadly finds itself in a place where that danger is real.”

It’s shocking that more than 400 Catholic churches in the United States have been attacked since May 2020. According to CatholicVote, the incidents have included “acts of arson which damaged or destroyed historic churches; spray-painting and graffiti of satanic messages; rocks and bricks thrown through windows; statues destroyed (often with heads cut off); and illegal disruptions of Mass.”

Such anti-Catholic violence has a lot to do with the Church’s unflinching defense of the sanctity of the unborn. In fact, more than half of the attacks on Catholic churches have happened since the release in May 2022 of the draft Supreme Court opinion in Dobbs, which held that the U.S. Constitution does not guarantee the right to abortion. These acts of vandalism include graffiti with pro-abortion messages.

Disappointingly, despite being our nation’s second Catholic president, President Biden has failed to marshal his administration toward a robust protection of Catholic sacred spaces. His administration has instead pursued a lopsided prosecution of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, a law that prohibits the use or threat of force and physical obstruction that injures, intimidates, or interferes with a person seeking to access an abortion facility or a house of worship. It has no qualms about aggressively prosecuting pro-life protesters. Meanwhile it ignores attacks on churches.

Just as the right to worship is central to religious freedom, so too is the ability to live out the faith in daily lives.

With this in mind, Religious Freedom Week directs prayer and action to ending blasphemy and apostasy laws abroad. These laws contribute to the persecution of religious minorities, including Christians, with penalties that include fines, prison sentences and even execution. Advocacy groups, including Aid to the Church in Need, are working to counter this pernicious form of religious discrimination. And if you think that it is confined to Islamic extremists, think again. The wretched situation of Christians in India, who face endless harassment and violence from nationalist Hindu militants, is a specific concern this week. They need our prayers and support.

We should also turn our attention to an increasing concern here at home: restrictions on the freedom to speak the truth — especially in the face of social pressure and oppressive laws. Catholics are being bullied into silence on matters as basic as the sanctity of human life and what it means to be male or female. Fortunately, many of us are not easily bullied.

Consider the Little Sisters of the Poor, hurled into the public eye when they refused the federal government’s demand that they include abortifacients and contraceptives in their employee health insurance plans. The sisters have been repeatedly victorious in the Supreme Court.

Catholic Social Services, a ministry of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, is another example. Unable to certify same-sex married couples as foster care parents, it insisted on the right to operate consistent with Catholic teaching on the nature of marriage and human sexuality. It won in the Supreme Court, too. And defenders of conscience also include individual Christian business people, such as Coloradans Jack Phillips and Laurie Smith, whose beliefs in Christian marriage put them into the national spotlight. Both won crucial victories in the Supreme Court, reminding government officials that the Constitution prohibits religious discrimination and safeguards free speech.

Despite such resounding legal victories, the ideological assaults continue.. The Biden administration, obsessed with promoting transgender ideology, has redefined Title IX, the law that demanded equal opportunity for women in education — including in school sports. Foster parents will now be expected to affirm a child's supposed LGBTQI+ identity and facilitate “gender transitions” as a condition of caring for them. And many employers must now “affirm” gender identity at work through “preferred pronoun” speech codes and permissive bathroom policies.

Religious exemptions are few and far between, because following sincerely-held beliefs is dismissed as discrimination by the Washington elites. Catholics and the Church must continue to stand their ground.

The U.S. bishops also encourage prayer for those who care for refugees and migrants. Vital services offered by Catholic charitable groups caring for the vulnerable are important corporal acts of mercy. But it is crucial that these organizations respect the rule of law, and the USCCB recognizes that “as part of their duty to uphold the common good, civil authorities are responsible for ensuring public order, including by maintaining national borders.” Doing so is particularly important as we face an unprecedented crisis at the border.

Religious Freedom Week comes to an end by drawing attention to the right of health care workers and institutions to operate consistent with conscience. Abortion, euthanasia and much of what falls under the umbrella of “gender-affirming care” are at odds with Catholic teaching on the sanctity and dignity of the person, made in the image and likeness of God. These harmful interventions are not health care, and Catholic medical professionals, hospitals, and insurance plans must continue to resist what is contrary to authentic healing.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Religious Freedom Week includes an important reminder: the defense of religious freedom must be done with civility. The USCCB invites Catholics to join in its “Civilize It: A Better Kind of Politics,” an initiative to address polarization and division in our Church and our nation. I think we can all agree that, now more than ever, we need to address this increasingly ugly problem. You can take the pledge here.