May 18, 2017

Religious Liberty: Hallmark of a Truly Tolerant Society

By Bishop Arthur Serratelli *
Religious Liberty: Hallmark of a Truly Tolerant Society

In June 2013, the European Union adopted “Guidelines on the Promotion and Protection of Freedom of Religion or Belief.” At the time, church leaders welcomed the directives. However, most recently, the secretary-general of the Council of European Bishops' Conferences reported that there has been little movement defending religious liberty on the basis of these guidelines. 

Three years after enacting the guidelines, in November of 2016, German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that Christianity is “the most persecuted religion in the world.” Even a quick glance around the world shows that Christianity is under attack. And yet there remains a reticence to even mention the persecution of Christians taking place in the Middle East.

Historically, Christianity has been in the Middle East centuries before Islam was born. It is hardly an import from the West. Yet, in the past century, two thirds of the Christians have been forced from their homes, tortured or killed. Some of the persecution comes from radicals. In some cases, the government endorses the persecution. In other cases, it simply closes its eyes.

In the United States, however, people are free to choose any faith or even to be an atheist. They have the liberty to convert from one religious community to another. Every year almost 150,000 Americans convert to Catholicism and 20,000 convert to Islam. But, in other countries, such freedom of religion simply does not exist. 

In Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Yemen, those who convert from Islam can lose their citizenship and their property rights. They can even have their marriages declared null. In Saudi Arabia, Mauritania and Iran, death is a real possibility for those who leave Islam. “Apostates are subject to gross and wide-ranging human rights abuses including extra-judicial killings by state-related agents or mobs; honor killings by family members; detention, imprisonment, torture, physical and psychological intimidation by security forces…and day-to-day discrimination and ostracism in education, finance and social activities” (Christian Solidarity Worldwide, “No place to call home,” April 29, 2008).

Many people are unaware that Saudi Arabia prohibits the public practice of all non-Muslim religions. The government even bans the display of Christian symbols. Everything must be Islamic. There is no freedom of religion. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world without any church buildings. Yet, in Rome, the historic center of the Christian world, there stands the largest mosque in the Western World. It was financed by King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, head of the Saudi royal family. 

In the last five years, restrictions on religious practice have increased in every major region of the world, even within the United States. In our country, even before the Constitution was signed, there has been a solid history of accommodating religious practice. Yet, with the passing of Obamacare, our government issued one of the greatest restrictions on religious liberty. It mandated that religious institutions include as a benefit in their health plans sterilization, prescription contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs. The refusal to comply with such bad legislation brought the Little Sisters of the Poor into our courts to defend their religious liberty.
In 2014, a graduate professor at Marquette University labeled a student’s defense of marriage as homophobic. When political science professor John McAdams defended the right of a graduate student to express his views on marriage, McAdams was fired. On Thursday, May 4, 2017, a Milwaukee county judge upheld the university’s decision to terminate him. Clearly, the court in this case is restricting the freedom of speech and religious belief.

Without a doubt, we have been witnessing across the nation “restrictions on…free exercise of religion and freedom of speech – a crackdown that can be seen in a variety of different contexts ranging from employers or health care professionals being required to provide or facilitate abortions against the dictates of their faith to street evangelists and public school students seeking to share their religious viewpoints with others” (Jay Alan Sekulow, “Religious Liberty and Expression Under Attack: Restoring America’s First Freedoms,” October 1, 2012). But the situation is changing.

On May 4, 2017, on the National Day of Prayer, President Trump signed the executive order “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.” This order sets a path to limiting government interference in the practice of religion. It seeks to remove the anti-conscience mandate of Obamacare that requires religious employers to provide coverage of sterilization, artificial birth control and abortifacients. 

Furthermore, the executive order weakens the Johnson Amendment. For the first two hundred years of our nation’s history, preachers spoke politics from the pulpit. They addressed the controversial issues of the day. Their sermons were a catalyst for social change, including the abolition of slavery and the recognition of women’s rights. They even publically rallied against the candidates such as Thomas Jefferson and William Howard Taft. But, in 1954, the government passed the Johnson Amendment. This provision in the U.S. tax code prohibits churches and nonprofit organizations from engaging in partisan political activity at the risk of losing tax-exempt status. When signing the executive order, the president told the religious leaders that, by lessening the restrictions, he was “giving our churches their voices back.”

The practice of religion is never contained within the walls of a church, a synagogue or mosque. Religious beliefs determine behavior and all behavior is social. The fundamental right to religious freedom goes beyond the political whims of any one political group, majority or government that would dictate social behavior. The new executive order “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty” recognizes this, but makes no change in a legal status quo that has proven to be contrary to religious liberty. Our legislators need to pass laws that provide protection for conscience on the basis of religious beliefs. Only then will we have religious liberty, a hallmark of a truly tolerant society.

Bishop Serratelli is the bishop of Paterson, New Jersey.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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