Thoughts on Religious Liberty 

If you remember the April 1991 Easter Mass in Lviv, Ukraine, then what a magnificent event this was I imagine. This was the first of its kind in 43 years. The Communist government returned the authority of the Church back to the Catholics and the townspeople came in hundreds. Complete with processions, hours of liturgy, hymns, partaking of the Eucharist, the people of Ukraine were filled with immeasurable joy!

When I think about religious suppression, I’m reminded of the various forms it can take. Some are very noticeable, some are very strict, some are defenseless, but in America, it’s becoming more regulated to private individual beliefs.

In recent years, more and more politicians have inclined themselves to endorse Freedom of worship than freedom of religion. The latter is more inclusive to all parts of an individual’s life, while the new is strictly private.

The logic of freedom of worship, I think, was recently most summed up by CA State Senator Scott Weiner. In response to CA new law of placing fines on those who disagree with gender pronouns for the elderly, Townhall quoted him saying,
“Everyone is entitled to their religious view,” Wiener said, “But when you enter the public space when you are running an institution, you are in a workplace, you are in a civil setting, and you have to follow the law.”

In contrast, Jesuit Fr. Thomas Rease, Senior Analyst of National Catholic Reporter and Commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), defined freedom of religion as, “It includes worship but also the right of believers to evangelize, change their religion, have schools and charitable institutions, and participate in the public square.”

When I reflect on freedom of worship, I’m amazed by what a bizarre concept it really is if fulfilled to its end. This view is so out of touch with many Americans and institutions who hold beliefs that guide and dictate their conscience. It tells me “you practice what you want in the confines of your synagogue, mosque, or church, but don’t you dare share that with anyone or let it inform how you think where you go.”

I’m reminded of last year in CA and their attempts to infringe on religious freedom. CA attempted to impose new regulations in post-secondary institutions that would violate their religious freedom. If SB 1146 would’ve passed, the law could possibly strip faith-based schools of state funds if they didn’t adhere to state regulations on non-discriminatory practices. Many of these new practices would violate freedom of religion, their deeply held mission statements, and the code of conduct for students and staff.

People of faith and non-Christians who care about religious freedom were outraged. Thankfully, the bill didn’t pass, but what’s stopping something like this from happening in other states or even at the federal level?

At the heart of this debate is conscience, the internal objective law of God that isn’t created by us in our minds that we must obey. To what extent does the role of conscience impact our daily lives? The Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 1778 says, ” Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right.”

Therefore, we’re mandated to obey the greater law of God than follow the civil law that goes contrary to truth. We see this multiple times in scripture, from Rahab hiding the spies by lying, the three young men in the Book of Daniel refusing to bow down to a king, or even the Apostles refusing to listen to the Jewish leaders requesting they stop preaching about Jesus Christ.

When I reflect back on some of the major religious liberty cases in the last 7 years, they all revolve around conscience and freedom of religion vs freedom of worship. Business owners can’t operate their industry by their faith, employers have to violate the natural law to accommodate employees on contraception, and even colleges can’t provide opportunities to students of low-income or minority backgrounds because of their code of conduct is somehow discriminatory.

When I think about Pope Saint John Paul II, I can’t think of a stronger modern defender globally of freedom of religion. He realized that human dignity, being made in the image of God, and humans having the right to seek the Creator was a right everyone is endowed with.

Considering he saw the devastation of persecuted Jews in his native Poland, religious suppression and persecution of many believers in his pontificate really gave him much power to speak authoritatively on the subject. In his World Day of Peace speech in 1988, He called freedom of religion, “an essential requirement of the dignity of every person, is a cornerstone of the structure of human rights, and for this reason an irreplaceable factor in the good of individuals and of the whole of society, as well as of the personal fulfillment of each individual.”

He later went on to say that infringing religious freedom damages peace, which should be a no-brainer for many people. Unfortunately, freedom of worship is a subtle form of religious discrimination that is rampant in many parts of the country. We must advocate and do more to ensure that our voices and beliefs are “Coming out” and approved just as much as those in the GLBT community.

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