Solemnity of the Nativity of John the Baptist (Lk 1:57-66, 80)

From the very beginnings of our nation 236 years ago, religious freedom has been the cornerstone of the American experience. It was written into the fabric of our nation by those who forged its defining documents and established its unique character.

Cornerstone of Liberty

Liberty in America

Liberty in America

Thomas Paine wrote “These are the times that try men’s souls. … What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.”

James Madison wrote that “religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.”

Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb tells us that “The Founders knew that in a republic virtue is intimately related to religion. However skeptical or deistic they may have been in their own beliefs, however determined they were to avoid anything like an established Church, they had no doubt that religion is an essential part of the social order because it is a vital part of the moral order.” Religious liberty isn’t a privilege granted by the state. It’s our birthright as children of God.

The Bill of Rights

The Bill of Rights

The founders of our nation believed so strongly in religious freedom that they wrote it into the very first amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” The First Amendment’s prohibition of a state established church and support of the free exercise of religion was intended to put all faiths on equal footing while explicitly barring government from imposing any restrictions on the people to follow their conscience or practice their religion.

Freedom at Risk

Since the birth of our nation we have experienced many attempts by those in power to circumvent, weaken, or even destroy our constitutional and God given right to religious liberty but never has the effort been so powerfully directed as it is today.

Threats against religious freedom in our country are not imaginary. They are happening right now. They are immediate, serious and real. The assault on our religious freedom should not be looked upon as merely ideological sophistry; our right to freely congregate and practice our religion is under direct attack by those who wish to redefine our national ethos to a purely secular society. Two recent examples clearly illustrate the threat.

  1. In January of this year the U.S. Supreme court ruled unanimously (9-0) in the case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC that the government agency could not “require a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister…”The administration had argued against the “ministerial exception,” which grants churches the right to select their own teachers and ministers even though the courts have long recognized that the government has no right to interfere in that process.” In effect, the administration took the view that government can supervise who your minister is and can even order you to reinstate that minister.
    In this specific case Chief Justice Roberts expounded upon the principle of religious liberty by saying that “[In 1806] John Carroll, the first Catholic bishop in the United States, solicited the Executive’s opinion on who should be appointed to direct the affairs of the Catholic Church in the territory newly acquired by the Louisiana Purchase. After consulting with President Jefferson, then-Secretary of State James Madison responded that the selection of church “functionaries” was an “entirely ecclesiastical” matter left to the Church’s own judgment. The “scrupulous policy of the Constitution in guarding against a political interference with religious affairs,” Madison explained, prevented the Government from rendering an opinion on the “selection of ecclesiastical individuals.”
  2. In its final ruling on January 20th, the Department of Health and Human Services following in the footsteps of the EEOC, the DOJ, and the NLRB stated that an employer, to be “religious, must exist for “the purpose of inculcating religious values and that they must primarily employ and serve persons who share the religious tenets of the organization.” Embedded in the HHS mandate is a very narrow definition of what constitutes a church and if it steps beyond this narrow definition by hiring those of other faiths or by serving the common good then it no longer meets the definition of a religious organization.
    The USCCB Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty recently wrote in A Statement on Religious Liberty that:“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, 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 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.”

We must understand that this is not a Catholic issue. This is not a Jewish issue. This is not an Orthodox, Mormon, or Muslim issue. It is an American issue.

Let Freedom Ring

The bishops of the United States have suggested that the fourteen days from June 21—the vigil of the Feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More—to July 4, Independence Day, be dedicated to a “fortnight for freedom”—a great hymn of prayer for our country. Culminating on Independence Day, this special period of prayer, study, catechesis, and public action is to emphasize both our Christian and American heritage of liberty.

The reality is that unless we work diligently to keep our religious liberty, we will lose it. And you may ask what can you and I can do to insure that our country, founded upon the noble principle of religious liberty, continues to be a beacon of freedom for the world?

As Bishop Charles Chaput points out:

“Nothing guarantees our freedoms except our willingness to fight for them. That means fighting politically and through the courts, without tiring and without apologies. We need to realize that America’s founding documents assume an implicitly religious anthropology – an idea of human nature, nature’s God and natural rights that many of our leaders no longer really share.

Our religious freedom ultimately depends on the vividness of our own Christian faith – in other words, how deeply we believe it, and how honestly we live it. Religious liberty is an empty shell if the spiritual core of a people is weak. Or to put it more bluntly, if people don’t believe in God, religious liberty isn’t a value. That’s the heart of the matter… The worst enemies of religious freedom aren’t “out there” among the legion of critics who hate Christ or the Gospel or the Church, or all three. The worst enemies are in here, with us … when we live our faith with tepidness, routine and hypocrisy.

Religious liberty isn’t a privilege granted by the state. It’s our birthright as children of God. And even the worst bigotry can’t kill it in the face of a believing people. But if we value it and want to keep it, then we need to become people worthy of it. Which means we need to change the way we live – radically change, both as individual Catholics and as the Church.”

May God continue to bless the United States of America.

About the author: Deacon Chuck

Deacon Chuck was ordained into the permanent diaconate on September 17, 2011, in the ministry of service to the Diocese of Reno and assigned to St. Albert the Great Catholic Community. He currently serves as the parish bulletin editor and website administrator. Deacon Chuck continues to serve the parish of Saint Albert the Great Catholic Community of the Diocese of Reno, Nevada. He is the Director of Adult Faith Formation and Homebound Ministries for the parish, conducts frequent adult faith formation workshops, and is a regular homilist. He currently serves as the bulletin editor for the parish bulletin. He writes a weekly column intended to encompass a broad landscape of thoughts and ideas on matters of theology, faith, morals, teachings of the magisterium and the Catholic Church; they are meant to illuminate, illustrate, and catechize the readers and now number more than 230 articles. His latest endeavor is "Colloqui: A journal for restless minds", a weekly journal of about 8 pages similar in content to bulletin reflections. All his reflections, homilies, commentaries, and Colloqui are posted and can be found on his website: Comments are always welcome and appreciated. He is the author of two books: "The Voices of God: hearing God in the silence" which offers the reader insights into how to hear God’s voice through all of the noise that surrounds us; and "Echoes of Love: Effervescent Memories" which through a combination of prose and verse provides the reader with a wonderful journey on the way to discovering forever love. He regularly speaks to groups of all ages and size and would welcome the opportunity to speak to your group.

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