- Prayer and Worship
- Beliefs and Teachings
- Issues and Action
- Catholic Giving
- About USCCB
Religious liberty is the first liberty granted to us by God and protected in the First Amendment to our Constitution. It 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 of the U.S. Bill of Rights 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," started out as a prohibition 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, to forbid governmental preference (at any level) of one religion over another, and to forbid 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?
Who have been heroes of religious liberty in the church?
Historically, what have been significant religious liberty issues affecting Catholics in our country?
Equal treatment of Catholic Schools: Catholicism was introduced to the English colonies with the founding of the Province of Maryland by Jesuit settlers from England in 1634. However, the 1646 defeat of the Royalists in the English Civil War led to stringent laws against Catholic education and the extradition of known Jesuits from Maryland, as well as the destruction of the school they founded. During the greater part of the Maryland colonial period, Jesuits continued to conduct Catholic schools clandestinely. The American Revolution brought historic changes, and in 1782, Catholics in Philadelphia opened St. Mary's School, considered the first parochial school in the U.S. In 1791, the ratification of the Bill of Rights, with the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom, helped Catholics further cement the establishment of Catholic schools.
Regardless, anti-Catholic sentiment in the late nineteenth century led to opposition to parochial schools. State governments opposed providing funds to aid students attending parochial schools, which Catholics founded largely in response to the requirement to pray and read from Protestant Bibles in public schools. Some Members of Congress attempted to block all government aid to religiously affiliated schools with the proposed "Blaine Amendment" in 1875. This constitutional amendment was never ratified at the federal level, but many state legislatures adopted similar legislation and amendments. Those "little Blaine" amendments are still in place in the constitutions of about thirty-seven states, and still operate to block Catholic school students from equal participation in government educational benefits.
Anti-Catholic bigotry in presidential campaigns: During the 1884 presidential campaign, candidate James G. Blaine (who proposed the "Blaine Amendment" in Congress) attended a meeting in a church in New York at which a minister chided those who had left the Republican Party by stating, "We don't propose to leave our party and identify with the party whose antecedents are rum, Romanism, and rebellion." Blaine sat quietly during the anti-Catholic remark. The scene was reported widely in the press, and it cost Blaine in the election, particularly in New York City.
During the 1928 presidential campaign, Al Smith, a Catholic who had been elected governor of New York three times, was the Democratic candidate for president. It is widely believed that Smith's Catholic beliefs played a key role in his loss of the 1928 presidential election, as anti-Catholic sentiment among the electorate was strong. Many feared that Smith would answer to the pope and not the constitution if elected president.
During the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy's Catholicism became a major issue in the election. Like Al Smith, Kennedy faced charges that he would "take orders from the Pope" and could not uphold the oath of office.
Establishment of diplomatic relations with the Vatican: In the first years of the United States, the new Republic had contacts with the Papal States. However, in 1867, Congress prohibited the financing of any diplomatic post to the Papal authority. This began a period of over seventy years when the U.S. did not have a diplomatic representative to the Pope, coinciding with a period of strong anti-Catholicism in the U.S. In 1940, President Roosevelt sent a "personal representative" to the Pope who served for ten years. However, when President Truman nominated an ambassador to the Vatican in 1951, opposition mounted, and President Truman abandoned the effort. Presidents Nixon and Carter sent personal representatives to the Vatican. In 1984, President Reagan announced that full diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the Vatican had been established, and the U.S. has continued to send ambassadors to the Vatican since then.
How was religious liberty addressed at the Second Vatican Council (Dignitatis Humanae)?
Dignitatis Humanae provides that "the exercise of religion, of its very nature, consists before all else in those internal, voluntary and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God." (Dignitatis Humanae, No. 3.) Therefore, individuals are "not to be forced to act in manner contrary to [their] conscience" nor "restrained from acting in accordance with [their] conscience . . . ." (Id.)
The Second Vatican Council also "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." (Dignitatis Humanae, No. 2.)
Further, Dignitatis Humanae provides that "[r]eligious communities  have the right not to be hindered, either by legal measures or by administrative action on the part of government, in the selection, training, appointment, and transferral of their own Ministers . . . ." (Dignitatis Humanae, No. 4.)
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.
What has the Church said about religious liberty since Vatican II, for example, through Blessed Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI?
Why does the mandate to cover sterilization and contraceptives, including abortion-causing drugs, violate religious liberty?
In short, it is the element of government coercion against conscience, and government intrusion into the ordering of Church institutions. As Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, USCCB Chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, testified to Congress: "This is not a matter of whether contraception may be prohibited by the government. This is not even a matter of whether contraception may be supported by the government. Instead, it is a matter of whether religious people and institutions may be forced by the government to provide coverage for contraception or sterilization, even if that violates their religious beliefs." (Oral Testimony Before the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, Feb. 28, 2012.)
How have religious liberty questions affected other religious bodies?
Current Concern: HHS mandate
Under the Administration's "compromise," the Church does not have to pay for those services. Why does this not satisfy church concerns?
The Administration's central claim is that contraceptive services are "free" because they save money on childbirths that enrollees in the plan would otherwise have – but that just means premiums paid by a religious organization for live births will pay for contraception and sterilization instead.A proposed "accommodation" for religious organizations covered by the mandate, while not in final form, offers to have insurers or other third parties impose the objectionable coverage – but this only deprives the employer of the ability to provide coverage to its employees that is consistent with its values, and it disregards the conscience rights of both insurers and employees.However the funding is worked out, the simple offer of health coverage by a religious employer will become the "trigger" for ensuring that all its employees receive morally objectionable services in their health plan.
Is this an effort to deny women access to fundamental reproductive services?
Access to contraceptives is already widespread. The great majority ofemployer-sponsored health plans already include contraception, and even without coverage, birth control pills can be obtained at low cost. The relevant question is whether religious organizations should be forced to facilitate the provision of services that are in direct violation of their teachings, in disregard of the First Amendment and federal laws respecting religious freedom.
Many young women say they can't afford to pay for birth control and these other medical services. Is the Church position discriminating against poor women?
Not at all. This is not about health coverage for the unemployed, or for those who must rely on the government for coverage (for example, by Medicaid). It is about people who are employed by the Catholic Church and its various ministries, which are typically generous in the health benefits they provide to their employees. Those who choose to work for the Catholic Church—and no one is forced to do so— know that they are working for a community with its own guiding mission and values, and many work for the Church precisely for that reason. It is unreasonable to expect the Church to violate its own teachings by facilitating and funding sterilization, abortion-inducing drugs, and contraception. As Archbishop Lori testified before Congress, this would be like coming to a kosher deli and demanding to be served a ham sandwich.
The vast majority of Catholics practice artificial birth control. Some argue that the church is out-of-step with modern family realities?
Again, the issue isn't whether individuals practice artificial birth control. Our teachings may not be popular, but that doesn't mean that the State can force us to violate our own teachings in our own institutions.
Some argue that the issue is about fairness and equity between men and women. Many of these insurance programs cover Viagra for men, but not protection for women. Isn't that hypocritical?
Viagra is not a contraceptive for men, so that's not a valid comparison. In fact, the HHS doesn't mandate men's contraceptives or vasectomies either. The relevant issue is whether the State should force the Church to violate its profoundly held beliefs.
Aren't you making too much of this "religious freedom" issue?
Religious liberty is a cornerstone of our democracy. The HHS mandate fundamentally alters the fragile balance between government and religious groups created by the framers of our Constitution. The same First Amendment that protects religious freedom protects freedom of the press. We wouldn't stand for the State telling newspapers or news programs what to write or whom to interview.
The HHS mandate has become a major political issue. Does opposition to the mandate put the church in league with the Republicans?
This is a bipartisan issue that affects all Americans. Legislation to correct this problem has enjoyed bipartisan support in both houses of Congress. We are asking all citizens—Democrats, Republicans, Independents, people of any faith or none at all—to let their views be known to all their elected representatives and to stand up for religious freedom and the First Amendment.
Current Concern: Redefining Marriage
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 could 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 rather 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., if the State redefines marriage in order to recognize so-called same-sex "marriage"), conflict results on a massive scale between the law and religious institutions and families, as the State will apply various sanctions against the Church for its refusal to comply with the State's definition. Religious liberty is then threatened.
But would ministers really be forced to officiate at the "wedding" of two persons of the same-sex?
This question is a red herring. In other words, it is a false caricature of the real concerns about religious liberty, and is actually used to distract from the real concerns.It is unlikely in the extreme that the State will force ministers and churches to officiate same-sex "marriage" ceremonies, although it is easily foreseeable that many church ministers and communities could be sued in court over this question. There are, however, other more probable and pervasive concerns.
What's the real threat to religious liberty posed by same-sex "marriage"?
The legal redefinition of marriage can threaten the religious liberty of religious institutions and individuals in potentially numerous ways, involving various forms of government sanction, ranging from court orders compelling action against conscience, to awards of money damages and other financial penalties, to marginalization in public life:
Have any of these threats come to pass?
Yes. Examples include, but are not limited to, the following: the extension of married student housing to same-sex "married" couples (a Catholic college in MA); the extension of spousal employment benefits to same-sex "domestic partners" (Catholic Charities in Portland, ME); the loss of funding and licenses to provide adoptions for refusal to place with same-sex couples (Catholic Charities in Massachusetts, Illinois, DC, and San Francisco); the imposition of tax penalties for preaching about marriage amendments (Montana); and the loss of state tax exempt status for a religiously-affiliated camp (New Jersey). These threats have been manifest in other countries as well, often to an even more persistent and invasive extent.
Doesn't a religious exemption protect institutions and individuals if they believe that marriage can only be between a man and a woman?
Sometimes. A religious exemption may provide protections, but so far those protections have been drawn very narrowly and fail to cover known risks.More broadly, because "marriage" so pervades the law, it is difficult to foresee all circumstances where religious freedom conflicts may arise. But even further, no religious exemption—no matter how broadly worded—can justify a supportive or neutral position on the redefinition of marriage (see CDF, 1992, no. 16). Such "redefinition" is always fundamentally unjust, and indeed, religious exemptions may even facilitate the passage of such unjust laws. Protecting marriage protects religious liberty; the two are inseparable.
By accepting this message, you will be leaving the website of the
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. This link is provided
solely for the user's convenience. By providing this link, the United
States Conference of Catholic Bishops assumes no responsibility for,
nor does it necessarily endorse, the website, its content, or