Frequently Asked Questions About Religious Liberty

Excerpted from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

What do we mean by religious liberty?

In Catholic teaching, the Second Vatican Council “declare[d] that 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, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.” Religious liberty is protected in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and in federal and state laws. Religious liberty includes more than our ability to go to Mass on Sunday or pray the Rosary at home; it also encompasses our ability to contribute freely to the common good of all Americans.

What is the First Amendment?

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution 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.”

What does “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” mean?

This phrase, known as the “Establishment Clause,” began as a ban 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, governmental preference (at any level) of one religion over another, and direct government funding of religion.

What does “prohibiting the free exercise thereof” mean?

This phrase, 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.

What did our early American leaders say about religious freedom?

George Washington, 1789: “The conscientious scruples of all men should be treated with great delicacy and tenderness; and it is my wish and desire, that the laws may always be extensively accommodated to them…

Thomas Jefferson, 1809: “No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of the civil authority.”

James Madison, 1785: “[W]e hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth that religion, or the duty which we owe our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence. The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.”

 What have recent popes said about religious liberty?

Pope St. John Paul the Great, 1996: “[T]he most fundamental human freedom [is] that of practicing one’s faith openly, which for human beings is their reason for living.”

Pope Benedict XVI, 2011: “[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 the constitutive dimension of man, his relation with his Creator.”

Pope Francis, 2015: “American Catholics are committed to building a society which is truly tolerant and inclusive, to safeguarding the rights of individuals and communities, and to rejecting every form of unjust discrimination. With countless other people of good will, they are likewise concerned that efforts to build a just and wisely ordered society respect their deepest concerns and their right to religious liberty. That freedom remains one of America’s most precious possessions. And, as my brothers, the United States Bishops, have reminded us, all are called to be vigilant, precisely as good citizens, to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.

 Where are the roots of religious liberty?

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.

How are marriage and religious liberty connected?

Marriage (the union of one man and one woman as husband and wife) and religious liberty are two distinct goods that are also related to each other. The protection of each good follows from the duty to protect the inviolable dignity of the human person. But even more directly, the legal protection of marriage as the union of one man and one woman also protects the religious freedom of those who adhere to that vision of marriage.

How does changing the legal definition of marriage have any effect on religious liberty?

Changing the legal term “marriage” is not one change in the law but amounts to thousands of changes at once. The term “marriage” can be found in family law, employment law, trusts and estates, healthcare law, tax law, property law, and many others. These laws affect and pervasively regulate religious institutions, such as churches, religiously-affiliated schools, hospitals, and families. When Church and State agree on what the legal term “marriage” means (the union of one man and one woman), there is harmony between the law and religious institutions. When Church and State disagree on what the term “marriage” means (e.g., when the State redefines marriage to include so-called same-sex “marriage”), conflict results on a massive scale between the law and religious institutions and families. Religious liberty is then threatened.

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