Protecting Our First Freedom


Cardinal Donald Wuerl
Cardinal Donald Wuerl (photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

As the Fortnight for Freedom draws to a close and we prepare to celebrate the anniversary of our country’s independence on July 4, it is an appropriate time to reflect on the freedoms we enjoy in the United States and our obligation as citizens to ensure that these rights are protected.

Today, we are confronted with an extraordinary challenge –– the erosion of religious freedom in our society. Religious freedom is not only about our ability to worship within the four walls of our churches or pray at home. It is also about being able to live out the good works of our faith and make a contribution to the common good without having to compromise that very same faith.

The most recent threat to our religious freedom is the unprecedented mandate by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which forces employers to provide coverage of abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilizations to their employees. The mandate, which is now law, includes an exemption to protect the conscience rights of houses of worship and institutions that hire and serve primarily people of their own faith.

However, this exemption defines religious institutions so narrowly that it does not consider our schools, hospitals, social services and charitable endeavors “religious enough” to be exempt. The sad irony of this is that it is precisely because our faith calls us to serve people of all faiths and backgrounds that we do not qualify as religious. Therefore, under the law, we will be forced to provide coverage for drugs and procedures that we believe are morally wrong.

On May 21, the Archdiocese of Washington joined with 42 other Catholic dioceses and organizations nationwide to file a lawsuit challenging this narrow religious exemption. The lawsuit in no way challenges women’s established legal right to obtain and use contraception or the right of employers to provide coverage for it if they choose. This lawsuit is solely about religious freedom.

The June 28 decision by the Supreme Court to uphold the Affordable Care Act pertained to the mandate requiring every individual to purchase health insurance (the “individual mandate”) and did not directly address religious freedom concerns raised by the HHS mandate, a separate provision of the health-care law.

Religious freedom is not a Republican or Democratic issue, nor is it just a Catholic issue. It is fundamentally an American issue. 

Indeed, religious liberty is the first freedom protected in the Bill of Rights and one that Americans of all faiths, or no faith, should be committed to preserving. History teaches us that infringement of the rights of one group eventually leads to the loss of others’ rights. Therefore, this erosion of religious freedom should be concerning to all Americans, not only to Catholics.

In the history of our country, we have always had room for people to exercise their conscience and still serve the common good. Religious organizations have provided education, health care, social services and a host of other benefits to the nation for the common good of all.

We should not today begin to close the doors in favor of a rigid, narrow, exclusively secular outlook on life. After all, the great American tradition is one of pluralism, not exclusive secularism. The strength of our country is reflected in the contributions that all people make to the common good.

In the United States, religious freedom is part of our heritage as a people. It is our birthright, our inheritance, and we must preserve it. The intention of the protection of religious liberty was to ensure that the voice of religious conviction would always have a place in our society.

In this increasingly secular world, it is all the more important that we, as people of faith, see in our daily actions the spiritual dimension that is intricately a part of them as we do our part to manifest God’s Kingdom among us.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl is the archbishop of Washington.

For more information on efforts to protect religious liberty,

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