‘Our first, most cherished liberty’: practicing religious freedom

By Mark Schmidt
Director of the Office of Respect Life/Social Justice

“In today’s world, religious freedom is more often affirmed than put into practice.” Defending religious liberty “guarantees the growth and development of the entire community.”  – Pope Francis, June 8, 2013

Even though the First Amendment to the Constitution, “Our first, most cherished liberty” as the bishops of the United States refer to it in their document of the same name, was ratified in 1791 we know throughout history that right has not always been respected in our nation. Over the centuries, citizens, collective groups of citizens, and even various levels of government have infringed upon the free exercise of faith of millions of people.

This has been the case for Catholics as well as other faiths. Under slavery, enslaved Africans and black Americans had their own faith traditions banned by those who claimed ownership over them. Some of those enslaved practiced Catholicism, Islam, as well as other traditions originating on the continent of Africa prior to their enslavement. Once in America those new arrivals and subsequent generations were either prohibited from any practice of faith at all or were forced to practice whatever faith those claiming ownership of them demanded.

The indigenous nations that had settled the North American continent long before European settlers arrived found themselves subject to prohibitions of practicing their beliefs; their sacred sites were forcefully taken from them, and it was not until 1978 with the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and the subsequent Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 that Native Americans began to be able to more freely practice their faiths, worship at their sacred sites, and possess their sacred objects necessary for their various rituals. Even now, native peoples are restricted from some of their holy sites and see places sacred to them destroyed by “development.”

Catholics too faced great prejudice, violence and government restriction from the very beginning of the United States. Whether it was laws to prevent Catholics from having their own parochial schools such as in Oregon in 1922, violent attacks on convents such as an Ursuline Convent being burned in Massachusetts in 1834, or states prohibiting Catholics from running for office, the Catholic community has not always had free exercise of faith.

Today we see violent attacks on Sikh, Jewish and Muslim places of worship in the news as well as reported hate crimes against religious minorities having risen in the last couple years. Other attacks on religious liberty have also arisen such as laws criminalizing churches and people of faith from assisting the immigrant or the poor in times of need, governments requiring people of faith to engage in acts contrary to their faith like the Little Sisters of the Poor being forced to participate in a government mandate to provide contraception and abortifacients to their employees. Religious liberty in America has never been completely secure and people of faith continue to struggle to be assured of that right.

What are we to do? As always, first and foremost, we must pray. Pray that we may receive the grace to live fully in the life of Christ. That we may become more like Christ in all of our thoughts and deeds. We must also pray for the strength to practice our faith according to the teachings that have been given to us through the church especially when we face condemnation or unjust discrimination because of our faith. We must also ask ourselves “What worth is religious freedom if we are unwilling to actually practice our faith?”

We must also pray that we recognize that the free expression of religion is for all and not just a few. We must support the rights of others who face discrimination or prohibitions to practice their own faith, even if it differs from our own. We must be sure not to participate in derogatory or denigrative speech or action that infringes on the practice of religious freedom of others. And we must advocate to legislators and those in government office to promote policies and laws that permit those of us who wish to practice our faith in public through works of charity, business or even government advocacy, to be free to do so without burden or restriction.

Our nation has been and will always be a work in progress and nothing this side of heaven is perfect. We must be good stewards of our nation and our faith by reminding ourselves of times when religious freedom has not been fully realized, learn from the past so that we may work on continually building a society which allows people of good will to live according to their conscience and faith.

For more information on the Fortnight for Freedom go to: usccb.org/fortnight. This is the third part in a three-part series on religious liberty.

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