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Religious Freedom: Our First, Most Cherished Liberty

Friday, 07 July 2017 -

With the feast day of Saints Thomas More and John Fischer and the Fortnight for Freedom come and gone, a renewed sense of religious freedom has settled into the hearts of Catholics across the country. These occasions provide an opportunity to reflect on the fundamental basis for religious liberty. They also provide an opportunity to further pray and work for a culture that values religious liberty as the Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) recently did.

Religious Freedom: Quest for Truth, God. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI addressed American Bishops on their ad limina visit to Rome. During that address, Pope Benedict called religious freedom “that most cherished of American freedoms.”

Religious freedom is cherished not merely because it provides an affirmative right for the human person to practice their faith both within and outside of their religious community. Beautiful as this is, religious freedom goes deeper.

Religious freedom is cherished because it fundamentally safeguards the most essential aspects of the human person: the intellect and the will. Through the intellect, the human person seeks knowledge of the truth. Through the will, the human person strives to live in accord with the truth. Together, the intellect and will work toward the ultimate good of the human person. In doing so, the human person seeks out not only the earthly things here below, but also the celestial things above, God Himself—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

When religious freedom is attacked, the fundamental nature of the human person is attacked. Attacks on religious freedom seek to reduce man and seclude him to the earthly domain. Such attacks attempt to discard the religious sense within the human person. To attack the religious sense is to attack the search within the heart of every man and woman for the things of God. But such a sacred quest must be vigilantly protected.

For every liberty, there is a corresponding duty. This means it is incumbent upon the people of God to safeguard religious liberty. As Pope Benedict exhorted in his address: We need “engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity” to combat the trends of secularism which undermine people of faith and the values they bring to the public square.

Religious Liberty Protected by SCOTUS. The duty to protect religious liberty also belongs to government. Recently, SCOTUS issued a legal opinion favorable to religious liberty and decided to hear another case with critical implications for religious liberty.

In Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, SCOTUS ruled in favor of a religious preschool that was rejected from a state program that provides reimbursement grants to purchase rubberized surface materials (tire scraps) for children’s playgrounds. The preschool was originally denied the grant solely because the playground belonged to a religious organization.

The government’s rejection was based on Missouri’s Blaine Amendment which prohibited state funding of religiously-affiliated schools. Unfortunately, SCOTUS did not discuss the history of Blaine Amendments which stem from anti-Catholic animus prevalent during the mid- to late-1800s.

Nevertheless, SCOTUS struck down the government’s use of the Blaine Amendment. SCOTUS correctly affirmed that religious organizations are constitutionally-guaranteed the same opportunity to participate in generally available government programs as non-religious groups. Simply put, government cannot single out religious organizations for discriminatory treatment. While the decision does not drive a stake through the heart of Blaine Amendments (which exist in nearly 40 states), their scope is severally limited.

SCOTUS also decided to hear arguments on a case involving Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colorado. Jack’s case deals with the question whether government can force a cake artist to use his artistic skills to create a wedding cake celebrating a same-sex ceremony. This case will be pivotal in defining the scope of conscience and religious liberty rights in the face of sexual orientation and gender identity non-discrimination laws and SCOTUS’s decision in Obergefell creating a so-called right to same-sex marriage. This case will be decided this time next year.

Remain Vigilant. Continue to pray for and live out a religious liberty that constantly seeks truth rooted in the love of God. The best antidote against attacks on religious liberty is an intentionally lived faith in imitation of our Lord Jesus Christ!

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