Our Nationwas founded on the principle that all people are "endowed by their Creator with
certain unalienable rights." As the Declaration of Independence explains, these
rights are not gifts from a civil government, but inherent and God-given components
of our humanity. The Constitution proclaims that the very purpose of government
is to "secure the Blessings" of these liberties for "ourselves and our
Founders, foremost among these rights was the freedom of conscience—the freedom
to hold, and live according to, one's religious principles. James Madison
deemed this right "the most sacred of all property," and wrote protection for
religious exercise into our First Amendment. General George Washington so respected
the rights of religious believers that he refused to force pacifist Quakers to
fight in his army, though he desperately needed men in the fight for
Church defends the same conception of freedom, including in religious matters.
Like our nation's founding documents, the Church teaches that God gives people
their natural rights. And like our Nation's Founders, the Church views
religious freedom for all people—Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus,
atheists, agnostics and everyone else—as an inherent human right. The Church
teaches that faith is an act of free will, and therefore all people should be
free to live by their own religious views—even wrong religious views—"as
long as the just requirements of public order are observed."1Jesus did not force anyone to accept his message, and neither
should anyone else.2
Church and civil law therefore teach that the government generally should avoid
forcing people to violate their religious beliefs. For example, by law our
federal government can only force people to violate their religion in the rare
instance when it has a truly compelling interest that can only be served by
burdening the free exercise of their religion.3 Nor is this principle a partisan one: the federal religious
liberty law was proposed by Senator Ted Kennedy, signed by President Bill Clinton,
and passed the Senate with 97 votes.
protections in federal and New Jersey state law, nurses in the Same Day
Surgery Unit of a large Newark hospital were stunned when supervisors
told them of a policy change: They would have to assist in abortions.
Nurse Beryl Ngoje explained: “I couldn’t do what they were asking me to
do… You go against what you believe, what are you? What’s left? Just a
shell of what you are.”
When more than a dozen nurses objected to the policy in writing, they
were told they could be transferred out or even fired for refusing to
comply. Fortunately, their lawyers won an injunction halting their
mandatory abortion training and eventually convinced the hospital to
agree to a court-approved settlement that protected the nurses’
religious convictions against taking part in abortions and allowed them
to keep their jobs without fear of reprisal.
the issue of religious freedom, American Catholics need not wonder what to
render to Caesar and what to render to God. Both authorities ask the exact same
thing: vigilance in the protection of religious liberty for all. And both
establish the same general rule that a just and tolerant society should not
force people to violate their religion unless there is an exceedingly important
reason to do so.
this broad commitment to religious freedom is increasingly under attack. In
recent years, governments have taken a variety of steps designed to force religious
people and institutions to give up their religious faith. For example, the
federal government recently told the Supreme Court that it has the right to
dictate to a church who should serve as its minister. State governments have
tried to strip pharmacists of their licenses because of their religious
obligations not to provide abortion-inducing drugs.
Catholic Charities was forced to stop finding adoptive homes for foster children
because it could not place children with same-sex partners. The federal
government has asserted that religious individuals forfeit all their religious
liberty rights when they open a business to earn a living. Legislation has been
considered to force religious institutions to collect and report information
about immigrants to whom they minister.
these measures is, in its own way, an attack on religious diversity, and an
effort to use the coercive power of government to control or punish religious
activities. When governments force people and institutions to give up their
religious beliefs, everyone loses. The religious believers and institutions
suffer because they are put to an impossible choice: give up your religion, or
close your doors and stop earning a living or serving those in need. In a liberal
and diverse nation, that type of ultimatum is almost never acceptable. The
proper course—as George Washington demonstrated with the Quakers—is to find ways
to accommodate religious objections, so that people of all faiths are welcome.
It is not
only religious believers who suffer when religious liberty is trampled. The
people served by religious individuals and institutions also suffer from these
threats to religious liberty. Consider the experience when Illinois tried to
force all pharmacists to sell abortion-inducing drugs. Although the state claimed
the rule was needed because religious objectors were interfering with access to
the drugs, it eventually had to admit that no one, ever, had been unable to get
the drug because of a religious objector. But the law still had a very real
impact on access to healthcare—it caused at least one pharmacy to close, some pharmacists
to leave the state, and presumably others not to join the profession—all at a
time when the state had a well-documented shortage of pharmacists. By targeting
religious objectors and pursuing government-enforced conformity without
exceptions, the state made health care less available for everyone.
is true in the context of the HHS contraceptive/abortifacient mandate. Many religious
people cannot in good conscience provide insurance coverage for abortion inducing
drugs. Yet the government is pressuring these people with the threat of
enormous fines—sometimes more than a million dollars each day—for the sin
of providing health coverage that excludes abortion drugs. As a society, we
should not accept a government's decision to pressure people in this way to
give up their religion. Particularly in troubled economic times, we should
welcome and thank job creators, and we should work around religious differences
rather than drive employers out of the public square. Our history attests to the
great benefits we all reap when religious people and institutions are free to
bring their religious values into the public square, as they did in the
abolition movement, the Civil Rights movement, and the labor movement.
benefited from these "blessings" of religious liberty, we have a common duty as
Catholics and Americans to consider what we can do to ensure that we "secure" those
blessings not just "to ourselves" but also "to our Posterity." Possibilities abound,
such as educating ourselves and our families, contacting elected representatives,
praying, voting, and talking to our neighbors about why religious freedom is worth
protecting. In short, we must remember that our religious diversity is a
strength, and that religious differences should be accepted and accommodated,
not stamped out by the government.
L. Rienzi is Senior Counsel at the Becket Fund
for Religious Liberty and a professor of constitutional
law at The Catholic University of America.
Vatican Council, Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae), no. 2, in The
Basic Sixteen Documents: Vatican
Council II: Constitutions, Decrees, Declarations, ed. Austin
Flannery (Northport, NY: Costello Publishing, 1966).
at no. 11.
42 U.S.C. 2000bb.