“This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means 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, 2).
As created by God, human beings have an intrinsic dignity. The natural desire to hold religious beliefs and to practice forms of religious worship are expressions of that dignity and must be considered a fundamental human right.
Since religious beliefs around the world are not uniform, the right to religious belief and practice posits a corresponding duty of respect for religious liberty. This duty of respect requires tolerance for different religious viewpoints and an appreciation for religious pluralism.
The state must guard the religious liberty of all faith traditions, both in law and public policy. This protection is spelled out in the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution:
“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.”
It’s essential to note that this amendment in no way prohibits the freedom of religious expression, but it forbids the United States from designating one faith tradition as an official religion.
Protection of the common good, however, can take precedence over an individual’s right to religious expression. Therefore, religious liberty does not protect those who promote violent demonstrations of faith or call people to commit violent acts.
The impact of the First Amendment, properly understood, protects freedom of religious expression and protects people of faith against those who would impose their secular beliefs on others. But, sadly, this has not been the case. During the past 35 years, government authorities have implicitly established secularism as an official state religion.
Secularism has taken many forms: the removal of voluntary religious instruction in public schools; the banning of voluntary private prayer in public schools; employment discrimination against those who openly practice their faith; the promotion of an atheist “ethos”; and mandatory contraceptive coverage in health plans. “It is therefore difficult . . . to accept a position that gives only atheism the right of citizenship in public and social life, while believers are, as though by principle, barely tolerated or are treated as second-class citizens” (Redemptor Hominis, 17).
The greatest threat to religious liberty at present is the adoption of same-sex marriage laws in six states, the latest being New York. Although same-sex marriage legislation contains exemptions for church institutions from civil suits for refusing to perform same-sex marriages, there is no guarantee how these exemptions will survive judicial review. Church institutions can also be punished by loss of government contracts for social services. San Francisco revoked $3.5 million in social services contracts from the Salvation Army when it refused, for religious reasons, to provide benefits to its employees’ same-sex partners.
The issue that most people have long identified with religious liberty—the display of religious symbols—is the easiest to resolve. Allowing the display of religious symbols does not constitute the “establishment” of a state religion but rather the history of our nation. The founding of America was rooted in Judeo-Christian teachings incorporated into our legal system and the document of our democratic charter.
The importance of religion to the development of our nation can be seen in the development of our education and health care systems. For the first 125 years of the American experience, our citizens and our government relied upon the money and work invested by faith-based organizations in education and health care. But in recent years, government funds for both education and health care have made secular demands on the religious institutions. This is discriminatory and a clear violation of religious liberty.
Secular and faith-based organizations should play on a level playing field in competing for government funds. Faith-based organizations that accept government funding must not be forced to sacrifice their religious liberties. For example, a Catholic hospital that receives a government grant should not be required to provide contraception and abortion services.
- The desire for religious belief and practice is natural to the human person who is created in the “image and likeness” of God.
- Religious liberty, therefore, is a fundamental human right rooted in the dignity of the human person and must be protected by law and public policy.
- The First Amendment protects religious expression and also protects people of faith from the enforced secularism of public institutions.
- Public display of religious symbols from the Judeo-Christian tradition do not establish a religion but rather express the historical development of our nation and its culture.