Religious freedom is a high priority

Religious freedom is on the minds of many Americans these days, especially as we await the final ruling from the United States Supreme Court on the Hobby Lobby lawsuit against the federal government. This lawsuit expresses Hobby Lobby’s opposition on religious grounds to the Health and Human Services mandate requiring employers to provide insurance coverage to their employees for contraceptives and abortion inducing drugs. The ruling on this case is expected by the end of the month.

More than three hundred plaintiffs in over ninety lawsuits have gone to court to challenge the mandate, and thankfully most are winning, arguing that no one should be forced by the government to violate his or her religious beliefs and conscience.

The issue of religious freedom remains a high priority for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The challenges to religious liberty in our country and in the rest of the world should be of grave concern to all of us. It is one of our nation’s most prized freedoms, yet it is coming under attack more and more around the world. There are many stories both here and abroad regarding how governments and public entities have denied individuals freedom to practice religion according to their conscience.

One important case involved the Little Sisters of the Poor, who received a temporary injunction last December against the crippling fines of one hundred dollars per day that they would begin to face on January 1, going well into the millions of dollars each year. This is a severe punishment for the nuns who care for the elderly and literally beg for donations in parishes and elsewhere to enable them to carry out their ministry. At issue wasn’t the contraception, but the right to live according to one’s conscience. This is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

A situation abroad involves a 27 year old Sudanese mother who gave birth to her second child. She is the wife of a naturalized American citizen from South Sudan. The woman is a condemned prisoner on death row sentenced to 100 lashes of the whip and then to death by hanging in two years. She is being accused of leaving the religion of Islam to become a Christian. Religious intolerance is becoming increasingly a problem worldwide, and we must speak out against it.

Here at home, the federal government is trying to define religion as simply a matter of what happens during the scheduled times each week in our churches, and is to be left there during the rest of the week. As stated by Archbishop William Lori, chair of the Catholic bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, “We in the Catholic Church have never seen such a distinction between what we do within the walls of a church and how we serve our neighbors. The faith by which we worship on Sunday is the very same faith by which we act in the world the other six days of the week.”
This should be a concern for all Americans and not just people of faith. Certainly many Americans do not agree with the teachings of our Catholic faith, but all Americans should have a concerned interest in the protection of all liberties granted by our Constitution.

Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, asks, “Do we really want the sort of civil society in which the consciences of the people are so easily swept aside by government action? If the federal government can force organizations and businesses to pave over their own consciences, to choose between being believers and being citizens, what will stop the government from imposing its will on your conscience next?”

The government has an essential duty to protect and promote the invi­olable rights of all people. In the Declaration on Religious Liberty we read, “The government has an obligation to assume the safeguard of the religious freedom of all its citizens, in an effective manner, by just laws and by other appro­priate means. Government is also to help create condi­tions favorable to the fostering of religious life, in order that the people may be truly enabled to exercise their religious rights and to fulfill their religious duties, and also in order that society itself may profit by the moral qualities of justice and peace which have their origin in men’s faithfulness to God and to His holy will.” (Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae, no. 6)

The current administration continues to violate this obligation by its coercive policies and actions. Therefore, we, as Catholics and citizens, must persist in making our voices heard. Pope Francis shares, “Defending religious liberty and making it available for everyone is everyone’s responsibility. Doing so guarantees the growth and development of the entire community.”

You can add your voice by joining a group of dedicated, peaceful protestors at the corner of 9th and Main Street from 4-5 p.m., each Friday. These men, women and children gather on that corner each week to pray for religious freedom. As a diocese, we will also celebrate for the third year the Fortnight for Freedom taking place from June 21 to July 4. The theme this year, “Freedom to Serve,” focuses on the freedom to serve the poor and vulnerable in accord with human dignity and the church’s teaching.

I would like to invite you to a formal presentation at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Rapid City on the evening of July 1 at 7 p.m. It is important that we all gather for this event to show our own personal concern and to learn more about what you can do to help in this fight for religious freedom. To practice our faith in the way Christ calls us is worth fighting for. Your voice and prayers will make a difference. Please come and join us! St. Thomas More, pray for us.