Fireworks light up the sky around the U.S. Capitol and Washington Monument on Independence Day last year. In a new statement released April 12, an ad hoc committee of the U.S. bishops' outlined examples of threats to religious liberty and urged Catholics to resist unjust laws. It called for "a fortnight for freedom" from June 21 to July 4 for prayer, study and public action emphasizing the Christian and American heritage of liberty. CNS photo/Reuters

Fight for religious freedom

  • April 17, 2012

The right of religious freedom means much more than merely being allowed to hold faith beliefs and go to church. Those are essential, of course, but a society that truly endorses religious freedom goes further. It also allows citizens to outwardly live their faith through the public activities they take up and, equally important, through those their conscience informs them to avoid.

In defence of that traditional understanding of religious freedom, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a bold statement four days after Easter. Titled “Our first, most cherished liberty,” the 12-page document is a manifesto for religious freedom that is blunt, provocative, timely, commendable — and worthy of export beyond American borders. Canadians should take note.

The U.S. bishops fear legislators are reshaping religious freedom to restrict it to matters of personal belief and private worship. Religion is being elbowed from the public square. Public expressions of faith are steadily being suppressed and people are being required by law to act in ways that offend their religiously formed conscience.

Baltimore Bishop William Lori said the conscience issue is causing Catholics to confront “a Thomas More choice” — obey an unjust law or remain faithful and face possible legal consequences. For example, American bishops have opposed a national program to force employers, regardless of religious beliefs, to provide free coverage for birth control, sterilization and the morning-after pill as part of company health-care plans. The bishops also oppose state laws that have caused Catholic charities to cease providing adoption or foster care services rather than place children with common-law or same-sex couples.

The American bishops contend that Catholics are entitled in a free society to follow the Christian call to participate in education, health care, poverty reduction and other public service without compromising their religious values or violating their conscience. That is true religious freedom. So firm is this belief that the bishops believe Catholics are duty bound to resist unjust laws.

Canada faces a similar test. In recent years, lawmakers, courts and human rights tribunals have leaned towards a restrictive definition of religious freedom. There is less tolerance today for the conscience rights of doctors and nurses who oppose abortion, or city hall workers who oppose same-sex marriage, or Catholic school boards who oppose gay-straight alliance organizations, or university students who form pro-life clubs.

The American bishops are right. Religious freedom, the true freedom that is robust and active in the public square, is being chiseled away. It won’t disappear overnight but will be whittled down slowly unless people of faith speak out in defence of their rights.

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