The Threat to Freedom of Religion: A Real and Present Danger

As I have traveled throughout the Archdiocese of San Antonio in recent months, I’ve seen the distress Catholics have shown over the recent challenges threatening the long standing right of religious freedom in our great land. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution instructs that our laws honor, protect and respect the conscience rights of religious institutions and individuals. However, the government’s regulative and legislative intrusion today poses a serious risk to “Our First, Most Cherished Freedom.”

When asked, people generally share concerns over any erosion of our First Amendment rights. However, a number of people are not clear about what is truly at risk. The threats against religious liberty have been obscured by reducing the public debate into a confusing conversation over insurance and bookkeeping.

I must make it clear that the health insurance mandate that has been handed down by the Department of Health and Human Services will force virtually all health care plans to cover sterilization, abortion and contraception. The so-called exemption, that has some believing that the problem has been addressed and solved, dangerously attempts to define religious ministry in historically narrow terms. Under the government’s definition, many Catholic and other religious ministries would be punished for serving people of other denominations, or no belief at all. The First Amendment allows for no such exemption and protects religious institutions from having to determine a person’s religious affiliation before it can feed, clothe, teach or heal them.

In the Vatican II document, Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, the church teaches us that religious freedom is a right, not simply a privilege received as an act of tolerance from a sympathetic government. “The human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs. … The right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself.”

Our Constitution guarantees that we should not be forced to choose between faithful citizenship and being faithful to the Gospel. Today, we face more than a theoretical argument; it is a very real threat, with very real, personal consequences. Our Freedom of Religion cannot and must not be limited to Freedom of Worship. In their document, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” the U.S. bishops wrote: “Religious liberty is not only about our ability to go to Mass on Sunday or pray the Rosary at home. …What is at stake is whether America will continue to have a free creative, robust civil society — or whether the state alone will determine who gets to contribute to the common good and how they get to do it.”

The United States of America has a noble legacy built on its commitment to freedom as a way of life, not an abstract concept. We call on our fellow Americans of all faiths to stand with us, united for the protection of all our earned freedoms so they will be our legacy to future generations. Freedom of religion springs from all truth that comes from God, making us truly free. In the words of our Founding Fathers; “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” These historic words in the Declaration of Independence make it clear that our purpose and our rights as a people come from God.

This article appeared in Today’s Catholic and is reprinted with permission.

His Excellency, Gustavo Garcia-Siller, is Archbishop of the Archdiocese of San Antonio.
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