November 9, 2011
In the coming weeks, we will gather with our families and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving. This holiday has its roots in the pursuit of a right our nation has cherished since its inception — a right so fundamental that it is known as the “First Freedom”— the freedom of religion. Today, through the Maryland Catholic Conference, which represents the Archdiocese of Washington as well as the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the Diocese of Wilmington, my brother bishops and I released a statement outlining increasing threats to this cherished right and highlighting the urgent need for all Marylanders to take steps to defend religious liberty.
Most of us are familiar with the story of the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving. Their arduous journey across the Atlantic in search of a place where they could freely practice their faith reminds us not only of the primacy of religious liberty in our country’s origins, but also of the deep need that we all have to follow our own conscience. When the Pilgrims sat down at the table with their new neighbors, they surely gave God great thanks that they had found such a home.
Unfortunately, not all settlers found the lasting religious liberty that they sought. Catholics were drawn especially to the haven of Maryland, where the Toleration Act of 1649 was the nation’s first law to protect an individual’s right to freedom of conscience. However, from the time the Church of England was made the official religion of the colony in 1692 until the American Revolution in 1776, Maryland Catholics found themselves increasingly oppressed. Churches were shuttered and Catholics were prohibited from holding public office. Our faith was banned from the public square.
Even here, then, the right to religious liberty must be vigilantly guarded if it is not to be lost. This Thanksgiving, a recent series of challenges to our freedom of religion have given us special cause to consider the lessons of the holiday and of the history of Catholicism in Maryland. At the local level, Catholic pregnancy resource centers offering material aid and emotional support to women in crisis have been singled out for increased regulation in both Montgomery County and Baltimore, for no other reason than that they are pro-life. Baltimore’s ordinance has since been ruled unconstitutional, and Montgomery County’s has also been largely overturned.
Local efforts to redefine marriage have made little allowance for those who believe that marriage is the union of one man and one woman. After the legalization of same-sex marriage in the District of Columbia, the city government informed Catholic Charities that the organization would no longer be eligible to contract with the city to provide foster care and adoption services unless it agreed to place children with same-sex couples. Although Maryland’s same-sex marriage bill of 2010 was defeated in committee, as drafted it would have provided little protection to Catholic institutions and no exemption for individuals to observe their religious beliefs about the nature of marriage.
Nationally, the Department of Health and Human Services has drafted regulations that would require virtually all Catholic organizations to add coverage for sterilization and contraception, including the abortifacient drug Ella, to their employee health insurance plans. A social services program for victims of human trafficking run by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops lost funding from HHS after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit claiming it was unconstitutional for the program not to offer its clients referrals for abortions. Meanwhile, the Obama administration argued before the Supreme Court that the Court should eliminate a long-standing legal doctrine meant to keep civil courts from deciding religious questions that often arise during employment disputes between churches and their ministers.
Our Constitution’s First Amendment famously guarantees that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” However, this right to religious liberty exists not only in our nation’s civil law, but also in natural law, flowing from each person’s human dignity.
To know God and love Him is the essential purpose of our being. The freedom to seek the Lord, then — and the freedom to reject Him — is likewise central to what it means to be human. As our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, stated, “Religious freedom expresses what is unique about the human person, for it allows us to direct our personal and social life to God, in whose light the identity, meaning, and purpose of the person are fully understood.”
History teaches us that the right to religious liberty is fragile. Remembering the extraordinary efforts of the Pilgrims to secure their freedom, let us always be thankful for ours, and may our prayers and deeds preserve it.
With prayerful best wishes, I am
Faithfully in Christ,
Donald Cardinal Wuerl
Archbishop of Washington
ON YOUTUBE: Cardinal Wuerl discusses the importance of the "First Freedom" - religious liberty.
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