Religious Freedom Week 2021 Highlights Church’s Enduring Mission in the US

The U.S. Catholic bishops designated June 22-June 29 as Religious Freedom Week.

This week Catholics have reflected on religious freedom in the United States.
This week Catholics have reflected on religious freedom in the United States. (photo: Shutterstock)

An open field amid public housing in Baltimore city offered the dream of a Catholic school. With tears in their eyes, African American community members spoke of how much they longed for the gift of Catholic education and hope for their children’s future. 

“This is a promise that can be delivered on — you will see a school,” Donna Hargens, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, recalled from that emotional meeting. 

On Oct. 23, 2019, the Archdiocese of Baltimore broke ground on the Mother Mary Lange Catholic School, the first pre-K3-through-eighth-grade school to be built in Baltimore city in 60 years and a tangible sign of the Church’s commitment to heal the wounds of racism. The school, named after Baltimore religious and potential canonized Black Catholic saint Mother Mary Lange, is now set to open this fall with full enrollment.

But the Catholic Church’s religious freedom in the United States to carry out the mission of the Gospel is part of what has made Mother Mary Lange’s namesake school on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. possible. And as Religious Freedom Week draws to a close on June 29, Catholics reflected on how that religious freedom in the U.S. Constitution has allowed the Catholic Church to become one of the largest nongovernmental providers of social services in the country.

“We’re Christ-centered — that’s who we are, and that makes what a Catholic school is,” Hargens told the Register.

Hargens said the Church’s religious freedom in the United States guarantees its ability  to provide an education that is rooted and immersed in the Catholic faith; and religious freedom also allows people to choose to send their children, whether they are Catholic or not, to be educated in that environment. Servant of God Mother Mary Lange (1784-1882), the school’s namesake and foundress of the first African American religious order, fought to provide Catholic education to Black children at a time when racist policies deprived them of access to quality public education in Maryland. The new school, with its state-of-the-art facilities and Catholic educational excellence, Hargens explained, carries on the Servant of God’s legacy. 

“The freedom to offer that to students and families is tremendous,” Hargens said. “And we have stories about how life-changing that experience is.” 

The Catholic Church’s educational mission, however, has faced challenges to its religious freedom due to systemic anti-Catholicism that lives on in so-called “Blaine Amendments” in 37 states. These laws, passed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries during the KKK revival in the U.S., were also motivated by anti-Black and anti-immigrant racism and aimed squarely at depriving state funds to Catholic schools, which were educating both children of color and immigrants. Catholic leaders have charged that these laws continue to hamper its educational mission to serve those groups in low-income areas.

Those laws may now be on tenuous legal ground thanks to a 2020 U.S. Supreme Court decision last year that found states that subsidize private education “cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.” Another case is potentially headed toward the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that religious schools cannot be excluded from government-funded voucher programs. 


Carrying on Jesus’ Ministry

No institution has shaped and defined health care in the United States more than the Catholic Church, which continues to be the largest private health-care provider in the U.S. Catholic hospitals in the U.S. predate the founding of the American republic. 

However, the Catholic Church faces new challenges today to its health-care mission, particularly in facing legislation intent on excluding the Catholic Church from health care over the Church’s objections to providing abortion, assisted suicide or transgender drugs and surgeries its medical professionals deem inappropriate. 

The Catholic Church is on the front lines of this struggle in California. Kathleen Buckley Domingo, senior director of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and incoming executive director of the California Catholic Conference, told the Register that “participation in the healing ministry of Jesus is integral to our faith.” 

“It’s not like the Catholic Church one day thought, ‘Well, we can’t run a post office, so we should do a hospital instead.’ Hospitals come from the very heart of our Church,” she said. “Our ability to do that freely [practice our faith] also means we are in communities serving the very poor and the most vulnerable in California,” she said. 

Because of this reach, Domingo said, they are able to train University of California medical doctors and connect them to these otherwise-unreached communities through the Church’s programs.

“We do a huge service to the community by being allowed to practice our faith in a way that is important and meaningful to us and is free of that government oversight trying to tell us to do things contrary to our convictions and our conscience.”

“They don’t need us to do things contrary to our convictions, but they need us to keep doing the things we do best, which are participating in the ministry of Jesus through these different services we provide.”

Domingo pointed to the March 2020-April 2021 impact report that gave an overview of how the Archdiocese of Los Angeles was making a difference in the region. The archdiocese’s Catholics dedicated $10 million to help families in need in Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, served nearly half a million individuals and families, and provided 3.9 million social services. Those services included helping people stay in their homes, with utility and financial assistance through the pandemic, and providing housing and meals to those in need. 


Making the Story Known

Other Catholics are working to develop a strong understanding of the importance of the Church’s religious freedom, particularly in serving the vulnerable and working to establish justice in society.

Barbara Samuells, president of Catholics for Freedom of Religion, a New York-based grassroots advocacy group that educates Catholic parishes about the importance of religious freedom, told the Register religious freedom both “allows us to teach the truth of our Catholic faith” and carry on the work of the Gospel “without being pushed out of the public square,” whether it is education, community food kitchens, sheltering the homeless or helping children obtain adoption in stable households.

This June, the U.S. Supreme Court handed a Catholic adoption agency in Philadelphia an important victory. Catholic Social Services had lost its contract with the city of Philadelphia because it would not certify same-sex couples as foster parents on religious grounds. The high court ruled the city violated the Free-Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. 

“Religious freedom allows us to practice the works of charity [in society],” Samuells said.  

Samuells said much work remains to be done to educate Catholics about the importance of religious freedom and why it is critical not to take it for granted. Her organization has helped educate families about their children’s constitutional right to pray and wear religious identification in public schools and that the wall of separation of church and state was meant to keep government out of the churches, not to keep the church out of the public square. 

“Our government is meant to encourage rather than discourage religion in general, without forcing people to choose one religious sect over the other,” she said. 

“[The Founders] knew that when the government steps in and tells people what they can and cannot believe, or what conscience they can and cannot follow, there is always tyranny,” she said. “In order for our country to flourish, they wanted a moral and religious people.”

Rebecca Shah (l) and Ambassador Sam Brownback

Ambassador Sam Brownback and Rebecca Shah (Season 4 — Ep. 5)

Our guests on this episode of Religious Freedom Matters are Sam Brownback, a former U.S. senator and Kansas governor who served as the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom from 2018 to 2021, and Rebecca Shah, principal investigator for the Religion and Economic Empowerment Project (REEP) and a senior fellow at the Archbridge Institute.

The Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, and the Mississippi River are seen from East St. Louis, Illinois, on June 27. Following the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision on June 24, abortion is now banned in Missouri. The nearest clinics to St. Louis are across the river in Illinois, including a Planned Parenthood in Fairview Heights that was opened in 2019 in anticipation of the overturn of Roe v. Wade.

Welcome to Post-Roe America

Every year on the anniversary of Dobbs, Catholics will be able to deepen their understanding of God’s role in the conception of every child, his care for the child’s growth, his knowing each by name, and the future for which he has given each child life.