The U.S. bishops must be “watchmen for the Church” in defending religious freedom, said Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., head of the bishops’ new committee on religious liberty.
He warned of current laws, regulations and court decisions that treat religion “not as a contributor to our nation’s common morality” but “as a divisive and disruptive force better kept out of public life.”
Bishop Lori made his remarks at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' meeting on religious liberty at their fall general assembly in Baltimore, Md. on Nov. 14.
He said that the bishops have watched with growing alarm as religious freedom has been increasingly eroded in the United States and is at risk of becoming a second-class right.
Bishop Lori emphasized that basic human freedoms are “inherent to human dignity” and not granted by the government, to be taken away at will. Americans, he added, “rightfully look to our government to fulfill its duty to protect religious liberty.”
The bishop noted that the American founders listed freedom of religion first in the U.S. Bill of Rights, and acknowledged that the Church “serves the common good with extraordinary effectiveness and generosity” in areas including education, health care, charity and other social services.
He argued that those who seek to stifle religious liberty are ignoring the role of churches in ending slavery, promoting civil rights, opposing child labor and working in other ways to better society.
Bishop Lori then observed that religious rights belong to both individuals and to churches and religious institutions. Freedom of religion includes not only the right to worship, he said, but also the right to bring religious values into the public square.
While religion is a personal matter, it is not a private matter, he added.
Among the factors that have contributed to the threats against the Church’s freedom is a false understanding of what religious liberty means, said Bishop Lori.
He argued that the Establishment Clause in the U.S. Constitution has been expanded to the point that it no longer fulfills its original purpose.
“The Establishment Clause was meant to protect the Free Exercise Clause, not the other way around,” he said.
Bishop Lori called on the U.S. bishops to take action to defend religious liberty by teaching, leading their dioceses, and speaking up against injustices throughout the country.
He also encouraged priests, religious and laity to cooperate in the fight to defend religious freedom.
Another venue for protecting religious rights, said the bishop, is the new ad hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, which met for the first time on Nov. 13.
He pledged that the committee would work on behalf of all the bishops to promote religious freedom. By working together, Catholics can strive to create “a new appreciation for religious liberty and a renewed determination to defend it,” he said.