Religious liberty is the first liberty granted to us by God and protected in the First Amendment to our Constitution. The First Amendment of the U.S. Bill of Rights states the following: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” This phrase: “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” known as the “Establishment Clause,” started out as a prohibition on Congress’ either establishing a national religion or interfering with the established religions of the states.
It has since been interpreted to forbid state establishments of religion, to forbid governmental preference (at any level) of one religion over another, and to forbid direct government funding of religion. This phrase “prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” known as the “Free Exercise Clause,” generally protects citizens and institutions from government interference with the exercise of their religious beliefs. It sometimes mandates the accommodation of religious practices when such practices conflict with federal, state, or local laws.
Religious liberty is inherent in our very humanity, hard-wired into each and every one of us by our Creator. Religious liberty is also prior to the state itself. It is not merely a privilege that the government grants us and that can be taken away at will.
The free exercise of religion, of its very nature, consists before all else in those internal, voluntary and free acts whereby people choose to set the course of life directed toward God. Individuals, then, are not to be forced to act in manner contrary to their conscience or restrained from acting in accordance with their conscience. The human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all people are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power so that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits. Religious communities also have the right not to be hindered, either by legal measures or by administrative action on the part of government, in the selection, training, appointment, and transferal of their own Ministers.
A most fundamental human freedom is that of practicing one’s faith openly. Religious freedom is indeed the first of human rights, not only because it was historically the first to be recognized but also because it touches on the relation with our Creator. The distinction between Church and State, between God and Caesar, remains fundamental. Churches have a proper independence and are structured on the basis of their faith as a community which must be recognized.
The recent government mandate to cover contraceptives, including abortion-causing drugs and sterilization, violate religious liberty. It is the element of government coercion against conscience, and government intrusion into the ordering of Church institutions. This is not a matter of whether contraception may be prohibited by the government. This is not even a matter of whether contraception may be supported by the government. Instead, it is a matter of whether religious people and institutions may be forced by the government to provide coverage for contraception or sterilization, even if that violates their religious beliefs.
Several states have recently passed laws that forbid what the government deems "harboring" of undocumented immigrants ~ and what many churches sere as works of charity and pastoral care to those immigrants. Perhaps the most egregious of these is in Alabama, where Catholic, Episcopal and Methodist bishops of Alabama, filed suit against the law: “It is with sadness that we brought this legal action but with a deep sense that we, as people of faith, have no choice but to defend the right to the free exercise of religion granted to us as citizens of Alabama. The law makes illegal the exercise of our Christian religion which we, as citizens of Alabama, have a right to follow. The law prohibits almost everything which would assist an undocumented immigrant or encourage an undocumented immigrant to live in Alabama.
This new Alabama law makes it illegal, for example, for a Catholic priest to baptize, hear the confession of, celebrate the anointing of the sick with, or preach the word of God to, an undocumented immigrant. Nor can they encourage them to attend religious services or give them a ride to those services. It is illegal to allow them to attend adult scripture study groups, or attend religious education or Sunday school classes. It is illegal for the clergy to counsel them in times of difficulty or in preparation for marriage. It is illegal for them to come to Alcoholic Anonymous meetings or other recovery groups at our churches.”
In its over-100-year history, the University of California Hastings College of Law has denied student organization status to only one group, the Christian Legal Society, because it required its leaders to be Christian and to abstain from sexual activity outside of marriage.
New York City enacted a rule that barred the Bronx Household of Faith and sixty other churches from renting public schools on weekends for worship services even though non-religious groups could rent the same schools for scores of other uses. This is devastating to many smaller congregations. It is a simple case of discrimination against religious believers.
Religious liberty is not only about our ability to go to church on Sunday or pray at home. It is about whether we can make our contribution to the common good of all Americans. Can we do the good works our faith calls us to do, without having to compromise that very same faith? Without religious liberty properly understood, all Americans suffer, deprived of the essential contribution in education, health care, feeding the hungry, civil rights, and social services that religious Americans make every day, both here at home and overseas.
What is at stake is whether America will continue to have a free, creative, and 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. Religious believers are part of American civil society, which includes neighbors helping each other, community associations, Boy Scouts, fraternal service clubs, sports leagues, and youth groups. All these Americans make their contribution to our common life, and they do not need the permission of the government to do so. Restrictions on religious liberty are an attack on civil society and the American genius for voluntary associations.
The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America issued a statement about the administration's contraception and sterilization mandate that captured exactly the danger that we face: “Most troubling, is the Administration's underlying rationale for its decision, which appears to be a view that if a religious entity is not insular, but engaged with broader society, it loses its "religious" character and liberties. Many faiths firmly believe in being open to and engaged with broader society and fellow citizens of other faiths. The Administration's ruling makes the price of such an outward approach the violation of an organization's religious principles. This is deeply disappointing.”
This is not a Jewish issue. This is not a Catholic issue. This is not a Mormon, Orthodox, or Muslim issue. It is an American issue. Religious liberty is being threatened, and we can’t stand by and let it be. We need to pray, in whatever way we each do, that this right is not denied or compromised in any way. Who knows where such compromise will lead. If history has taught us anything, its that we need to stand up for one another.