What I Wish College Students Knew About Religious Liberty
The two most important things to know about religious liberty are that we can easily take it for granted and that it is currently under assault by our government.
Securing religious liberty through the First Amendment was one of the greatest achievements of the Founding Fathers. Contrary to the popular misconception that the Constitution sets out a “separation of Church and state,” the First Amendment actually guarantees the free exercise of religion for both institutions and individuals.
The Founding Fathers understood that democracy flourishes when all people, including people of faith, are allowed to freely associate and thereby create civil society. In the over two centuries of history that has ensued since our nation’s founding, Americans have enjoyed an unparalleled springtime of religious liberty. In much of the rest of the world, meanwhile, religious freedom continues to be actively censored and outlawed.
What is religious freedom? Archbishop Charles Chaput recently explained it this way: “…religious freedom is never just freedom from repression but also—and more importantly—freedom for active discipleship. It includes the right of religious believers, leaders, and communities to engage society and to work actively in the public square.” Religious freedom guarantees the right of all people of faith – Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, Jew, etc. – to live out their faith beyond the four corners of their worship space.
Unfortunately, over the past four years we have witnessed an unprecedented systematic assault on our religious liberty. In action after action the current administration has put forward a formulation of religious liberty that reduces it to merely the freedom to worship. That is the narrow definition of religious liberty that was argued by official representatives of the administration and which the Supreme Court struck down 9-0 recently.
The biggest threat to religious freedom, however, is the preventative services mandate (or “HHS mandate”) imposed by the Affordable Care Act signed into law by President Obama, which would force Catholic employers and institutions to pay for things our Catholic faith teaches are morally unacceptable, including contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs. Critics rightfully point out that if government succeeds in forcing people of faith to violate their conscience on one important matter such as this one, that will set up a slippery slope where we may be compelled to take other actions which violate our sincerely held beliefs.
Within weeks of the HHS mandate being announced, every single Catholic bishop in America, including dozens of Orthodox bishops and protestant pastors, had spoken out against it and called for our religious liberty to be protected. The Catholic bishops also initiated a “Fortnight for Freedom” this summer – two weeks of prayer and fasting that our religious liberty will be respected and restored.
In addition, over 100 individuals, hospitals, universities, businesses and schools have sued the administration to regain their First Amendment rights – including a company that prints bibles and was told it was insufficiently religious to qualify for an exemption from the mandate! Many of these businesses are already in violation of the law and therefore subject to crippling fines and penalties rather than submit to the new regulations that violate their conscience.
Sadly, in the presidential and vice-presidential debates so far the incumbents have refused to even acknowledge that religious liberty is under attack. President Obama has mischaracterized the Church’s position as wanting to give employers the power to take away the ability of their employees to purchase contraception for themselves in the private market (something they have not proposed). Furthermore, Vice-President Joe Biden stated a falsehood when he claimed repeatedly during the Vice-Presidential debate that religious institutions will not be forced to purchase contraception – a statement so wide of the mark the U.S. Bishops issued a rebuttal that his “fact” was “not a fact”.
Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have both promised to respect religious liberty and work with Catholic institutions if they were to be elected. Mitt Romney has promised to repeal as much of the Affordable Care Act on day one as he can and to replace it with health care proposals that respect religious liberty. He even told a town hall assembly that he feels “we are all Catholic now” because of this battle to protect religious liberty. Paul Ryan has repeatedly stated his opposition to the HHS mandate and brought up the threat to religious liberty during the Vice-Presidential debate and numerous public appearances.
Religious liberty is one of the basic freedoms Catholics are called to protect and cherish. We owe it to ourselves, to our friends, family and neighbors to speak out about why religious liberty is a good thing and worth preserving. Fighting for religious liberty means fighting for the right of all people of faith to live their lives with integrity and to allow them to seek the good things their faith inspires them to pursue. The responsibility of government is to protect this fundamental freedom, not undermine it.
May we become a shining witness of religious liberty in these next critical weeks as people across the country will be thinking seriously about which path is the right way forward for America.
This post is a apart of the “What I Wish College Students Knew” series. We wanted to get popular Catholic authors and speakers to write about topics that were close to the minds and hearts of college students across the country. To read more posts in this series, click on the links below. Feel free to give your input and join the conversation on these important topics.
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What I Wish College Students Knew About Religious Liberty
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