Each year in July, we get a day off to celebrate our country – the land of the free and home of the brave; but what is freedom? In particular, what is religious freedom? When asked this question, most of us think of the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution. It starts with:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…
It is easy to see that this clause protects the Church from government interference in obvious religious activities. It is almost laughable to think there would ever be a law governing which hymns to sing on Sunday, which version of the Bible could be sold at a Catholic bookstore, or how long the pastor’s homily must be. The question of religious freedom becomes more difficult to answer when morality and religious convictions are practiced in a more public setting.
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference (PCC) was very busy the first half of this year advocating a number of issues with a common theme – religious freedom.
A mandate for hospitals to administer emergency contraception, even when it may cause an abortion is one issue. Another is the Pre-K Counts program that proposes to spend millions of tax dollars on pre-school education, but excludes religious programs unless they cease to be religious. The attempt to include vague and undefined language about discrimination for “sexual orientation” in a bill designed to help foster children is yet another issue that invites the question, “Does the Catholic Church have the freedom to be ‘religious’ in its various public ministries?”
Sadly, these issues are not unique. Our freedom of religion, of expression, of conscience, of private and public worship, and respect of religious convictions for believers of all faiths and for non-believers alike are among the most hotly debated topics in American history. Even the drafters of the Constitution disagreed about the role of religion in public life and the role of government in religion.
We believe we have a right to practice the tenets of our faith in the pews and on the altar, and in the public square. We believe we have the freedom to be pro-life in our hospitals, to educate our children in faith-based programs, and guide them to make good moral and ethical decisions without fear of interference from those who disagree with the teachings of the Church. This is precisely the religious freedom the Constitution is designed to protect.
The glossary of the US Catholic Catechism for Adults (USCCB, 2006) explains our civic responsibility: “Citizens should work with civil authority to build a society of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. In conscience, citizens may not obey civil laws that are contrary to the moral order.” The PCC does what it can to advance this cause in Harrisburg. As concerned Catholic citizens, each of us must be ever vigilant to defend against attempts to chip away our religious freedom.
PCC Column July 2007 by Amy Beisel, Communications Director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference – the public affairs arm of Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops and the Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania.