Religious freedom: our first and most cherished liberty
April 18, 2019
With the feast day of Ss. 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 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, he called religious freedom "that most cherished of American freedoms."
Religious freedom is cherished not merely because it provides an affirmative right for human persons to practice their faith both within and outside of their religious communities. 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 confine 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 that undermine people of faith and the values they bring to the public square.
Religious liberty protected by high court
The duty to protect religious liberty also belongs to government. Recently, the Supreme Court 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, the court 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, the high court did not discuss the history of Blaine Amendments, which stem from anti-Catholic animus prevalent during the mid- to late-1800s.
Nevertheless, the court struck down the government’s use of the Blaine Amendment. The Supreme Court 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 now limited.
The high court also decided to hear arguments in a case involving Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colo. Phillips’ case deals with 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 the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell creating a so-called right to same-sex marriage. The case will be decided at about this time next year.
This and other challenges to religious freedom call on us to 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!
Tom Venzor is executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, with headquarters in Lincoln. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.