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May 03, 2012
Freedom in America: The Question
By Bishop Arthur Serratelli *

By Bishop Arthur Serratelli *

One of America’s greatest social reformers, writers and statesmen lived when this country was being torn apart by racial prejudice and the horror of slavery. Frederick Douglass was known both in the North and in the South as well as abroad. He published a weekly paper, went on speaking tours of England, Ireland and Scotland and won acclaim for his exceptional oratorical skills. He not only was an advocate for the freedom of slaves, but also a strong proponent for women’s rights.

Douglass himself was the son of a Maryland slave and had escaped to freedom. He was self-taught and became a leader in the abolitionist movement. Many Northerners were shocked to discover that such a well-educated man and renowned orator had been a slave. Southerners were not so surprised. Many of them recognized that their slaves were intelligent and moral. They even used them to educate their children.

Douglass stood out for his contemporaries as a living counter-argument to the fallacious reasoning of the Supreme Court in its 1857 Dred Scott v. Sanford decision. The court said that, when the people of African descent were brought to this country, they were “a subordinate and inferior class of beings who had been subjugated by the dominant race.” Hardly true!

The court looked only at the condition of people of African descent at the time of their enslavement. The court failed to look at their full human potential. Someone’s condition at one or another point in life is not the indicator of the person’s true worth and dignity. An enslaved man, who later is set free and educated, has an inherent dignity at every stage of his human development.

Furthermore, the court made a distinction between citizens mentioned in the Constitution and an “inferior class of people” who are not mentioned. Since the latter group is not mentioned explicitly in the Constitution, the court ruled that they did not enjoy the right to freedom given to citizens. But is not the right to freedom something so basic that no document can ignore it or deny it? (cf. Robert Spitzer, “Ten Universal Principles,” p. 59-62)

Years later, the Supreme Court repeated the same mistakes in Roe v. Wade in 1973. The judges made the gratuitous and false distinction between a human being (the child in the womb) and a person. They could not prove the distinction. They merely affirmed it. Furthermore, the judges did not look at the full human potential of the human being in utero. They spoke of the child in the womb as inferior to the child at birth.

In the Dred Scott v. Sanford decision, the court had distinguished citizens from slaves whom the court judged to be an inferior class of human beings. Then, the court denied the slaves the same freedom enjoyed by citizens. In Roe v. Wade, the court distinguished between persons mentioned in the Constitution and all other human beings. The court then denied the unborn the fundamental right to life, because the court declared that the unborn were not persons in a legal sense. (Ibid., p. 62-65)

The struggle to end slavery spilled much blood, divided families and placed the nation on the brink of dissolution. After the Civil War, the horror of slavery finally ended with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865. The battle to regain the legal right to life for the unborn child still continues.

As more and more people are beginning to recognize the travesty of justice wrought by Roe v. Wade, there stirs a very haunting question. How could the Supreme Court of this land sanction in two cases actions that are inherently evil? If the court did it once and then repeated the same mistake with even more devastating consequences, what safeguard is there that the rights that we now enjoy will not be denied us in the future?

If a government decides that same-sex unions are to be called marriage, can the government remove our freedom of speech to say otherwise? This is no idle question. The defense of marriage as a union between one man and one woman is now labeled discrimination, intolerance and hate-speech against gays and lesbians.

Since the government has decided that women’s health care requires free access to abortifacients and contraceptives, can the government now force those who object to comply? After Roe v. Wade, many states enacted conscience clauses to allow physicians to follow their conscience and not participate in legalized abortion. Can the rubric of a woman’s civil right to have access to these services override the right of conscientious objection? Again, this is no idle question.

During the Bush Administration, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a rule preventing employment discrimination against medical professionals refusing to perform a medical service against their religious or moral beliefs. When the rule was promulgated, Connecticut, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon and Rhode Island filed suit to block the regulation. “One of the Obama administration’s first public acts was to file in the “Federal Register” a notice of its intent to rescind the Bush conscience regulation” (Wesley J. Smith, "Pulling the plug on the conscience clause," First Things, December, 2009). With the recent ruling of the Obama administration on mandated health insurance coverage for contraceptives, sterilization and abortifacients, the issue of conscience is at the center of a growing storm.

On March 23, 2012, thousands upon thousands of concerned Americans united across the country in 146 protests, deliberately ignored by the mainstream media. This strong grassroots movement is being fueled by the ruling of the Obama administration to force conscientious objectors, most especially religious organizations, churches, universities and schools, to pay for contraceptives, sterilization and abortifacients in their health plans. The issue is not birth control. The fundamental issue is religious freedom and rights of conscience.

If religious institutions fail to comply with the health care mandate, can the government penalize them with heavy fines and effectively diminish or end their mission? If a doctor refuses to perform an abortion, can the government then revoke the doctor’s license? If a justice of the peace refuses to perform a same-sex marriage, can the government then remove him from office, even if there are others who are willing to perform the ceremony? In 2004, justices of the peace who refused to perform same-sex unions on the basis of their religious objections were summarily dismissed.


Is there no room any more for freedom of religion and the right of conscience? Are all rights contingent upon the decision of a court or legislature or the outcome of an election or the will of the majority? If so, will we not always be threatened by the tyranny of the most powerful or the dominant group within society? Is there anything that can prevent America from being tossed about by the chilling winds of a creeping totalitarianism? How can Americans remain free?

To be continued…


Reprinted with permission of The Beacon, newspaper of the Paterson Diocese.

Bishop Serratelli is the bishop of Paterson, New Jersey.
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