Religious liberty means ‘freedom to serve’

From June 21 to July 4, the Catholic Church in the United States will again observe the “Fortnight for Freedom,” dedicated to two weeks of prayer and education related to the importance of preserving religious liberty for all Americans.

This year’s theme is “Freedom to Serve” and highlights the most important theme of the Catholic Church’s advocacy for religious liberty in recent years: the desire of people of faith to serve others and promote the common good, and do so consistent with their deeply held beliefs.

Recent trends and cases stress the importance of being proactive in confronting efforts to push religious faith into the sacristy.

Restrictions growing

Though Americans still enjoy robust religious liberty in the United States compared to other places around the world, restrictions on religious liberty are growing. According to a recent Pew Research study, the U.S. level of government restrictions (3.7 on a 10-point scale) is 54 percent higher than the world median (2.4) in 2012, the latest year for which data are available.

While restrictions on religion have been rising globally, just six years earlier the U.S. was lower than the global median (1.6 vs. 1.8). And though the U.S. ranks lower than more severely restrictive governments like China, Syria and Egypt, the limitations on religious groups in the U.S. are higher than ever.

Such developments are inconsistent with the American tradition of viewing religion as a positive force in society that should be given latitude and protection unless there is some compelling governmental interest in a particular case to limit its free exercise.

What Jefferson really said

The American founders made religious liberty the first freedom identified in the Bill of Rights. They understood the essential role that religion played in fostering the moral and social capital necessary for the exercise of ordered liberty and in preserving a government of limited and enumerated powers.

George Washington made this point clear when he said in his farewell address: “Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports.”

Similarly, Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between church and state in his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association did not mean the separation of law and morals, or the exclusion of religion from public life. Jefferson and the other framers sought to keep the state out of the business of churches and religious organizations, so that they could go about serving people in need and fostering the virtue necessary to preserve republican government.

After the Louisiana Purchase, the Ursuline Sisters of New Orleans were concerned that the new American government would severely restrict their educational and charitable efforts. They were surprised to learn that, far from erecting a “wall of separation” around their convent, President Jefferson promised his “patronage” and “protection,” and guaranteed them the widest latitude of action because of the social importance of their work:

“I have received, holy sisters, the letter you have written me wherein you express anxiety for the property vested in your institution by the former governments of Louisiana. The principles of the constitution and government of the United States are a guarantee to you that [your convent and its property] will be preserved to you, sacred and inviolate, and that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to its own voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority. Whatever the diversity of shade may appear in the religious opinions of our fellow citizens, the charitable objects of your institution cannot be indifferent to any; and its furtherance of the wholesome purposes of society, by training up its younger members in the way they should go, cannot fail to ensure it the patronage of the government it is under. Be assured it will meet all the protection which my office can give it. I salute you, holy sisters, with friendship and respect.”

Freedom to serve

Unfortunately, the ability of religious people and institutions to live the missionary mandate of the Gospel and perform works of mercy is increasingly in jeopardy. Unlike the Ursuline Sisters in 1803, religious sisters today such as the Little Sisters of the Poor may be required to abandon some of their work in the United States because of the federal government’s “preventive services” mandate. In another egregious instance, the U.S. bishops’ Office of Migration and Refugee Services lost its federal grant to provide anti-human-trafficking services because it would not provide or refer trafficking victims to abortion and contraceptive “services.”

Who will replace these organizations and the “charitable objects of their institution[s]” when they are gone? Will an already over-burdened state government seek more taxpayer funds to provide these needed services? Will they be performed as effectively?

These are just some of the emerging questions.

The need to defend religious liberty is not rooted in slippery slope hypotheticals. Its importance is seen in concrete examples which indicate that our long-term ability to bear witness to the Gospel in word and in deed should not be taken for granted.

Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

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