Religious freedom in America :: Catholic News Agency (CNA)

Religious freedom in America

Sarah Bartel

Clare Bartel poses in front of the Brick Chapel at St. Mary's City in 2009. Photo courtesy of Sarah Bartel.

Before moving back to my native Pacific Northwest, I visited Historic St. Mary City in southern Maryland with my daughters. They enjoyed talking with actors dressed in colonial garb, scampering atop a cannon, and exploring the cabin of the Maryland Dove, styled as a 17th century trading ship. Gazing at the antique rosary unearthed by archeologists, walking in the reconstructed Brick Chapel that stands on the site of the first Catholic Church in the English colonies, and reflecting on the lives of those who lived, worked, prayed, and died on that soil, I was deeply moved to stand at the birthplace of religious freedom in our country.

When 150 English Catholics and Protestants settled in Maryland in 1634, Catholics were suffering persecution in England. The persecution began as King Henry VIII tried to coerce Catholic consciences to bend on the question of the indissolubility of marriage.

Maryland’s 1649 Act of Toleration granted Catholics freedom from the English persecution of the Church, making Maryland one of two colonies in which Catholics were allowed to practice their faith (Pennsylvania was the other). The Act was revoked in 1654, restored, and revoked again in 1692. Maryland’s Catholics suffered periods of persecution in which the public practice of the faith was outlawed. Catholics were forbidden from attending Mass outside their homes, from holding public office, practicing law, teaching, and voting. For over a hundred years, any priests brave enough to enter the colony did so in disguise. It was not until the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, that Catholics in Maryland regained religious freedom. Maryland’s Act of Toleration eventually became the basis for the First Amendment in our Bill of Rights, our Constitutional basis for the freedom of religion.

Just as in King Henry’s day, marriage and sexuality are again at the heart of many of the current threats to religious freedom.

The Health and Human Services contraceptive mandate, for example, denies Catholic institutions such as diocesan ministries, hospitals, social services, schools, and universities the conscience protections allowed to a narrow set of religious institutions by restrictively defining a “religious institution” as only including churches and their direct employees.

The Church—the originator of hospitals and universities--has always offered care and service to the public as a way to follow Christ’s call to share his love with all. The Church cannot be divided from her ministries. This mandate requires these Catholic institutions to violate their own ethics by providing for employees’ artificial contraceptives, including abortifacients such as the Pill, the morning-after pill, and IUD’s. Refusal to comply would result in crippling fines and sanctions.

Likewise, religious family businesses who object to contraception, sterilizations, or abortifacient contraceptives must choose between compromising their deeply held religious beliefs or facing business-closing fines.

As Bishop William Lori stated in “The Parable of the Kosher Deli,” this is akin to requiring observant Orthodox Jews to offer ham sandwiches in their deli.  (“But pork is good for you,” hypothetical supporters argue. “It is, after all, the other white meat.” Others may claim, “So many Jews eat pork, and those who don’t should just get with the times.”)

The Founding Fathers were clear about the importance of conscience rights. In 1792, James Madison wrote that conscience is "the most sacred of all property.” Thomas Jefferson wrote to religious sisters serving in Louisiana that the Constitution protected their ministry’s liberty "to govern itself according to its own voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority."

The Supreme Court decision regarding the HHS contraceptive mandate for religious family businesses is pending as I write. However, Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Sebelius are decided, it is clear that challenges to religious liberty will not abate any time soon. And marriage will continue to be the flashpoint for many of these challenges.

Christ’s radical teaching about God’s plan for marriage “from the beginning” challenges the values of the sexual revolution begun in the 1960’s which are now largely accepted as the cultural norm. Enabled by a contraceptive mentality, these new sexual values try to “separate” what “God has joined” (Matt 19: 3-9): procreation and sex, sex and marriage, and marriage and the sexual difference between man and woman.

The good news is that we are a part of our country’s living history.

For the third year in a row, our American bishops are calling for a Fortnight for Freedom filled with “prayer, study, catechesis, and public action” to highlight “both our Christian and American heritage of liberty.” Starting June 21st and culminating with July 4th, these days include the feasts of martyrs who faced the persecution of political power. Three of them gave their lives defending God’s laws about marriage--St. John Fisher, St. Thomas More, and St. John the Baptist.

While my young daughters explored the paths and exhibits at Historic St. Mary City, I thought not only about the past, but about the future. What will the Catholic Church in America go through in their lifetime? Their grandchildren’s? May an outpouring of prayer, activism, and education on religious freedom light up our Church as fireworks light up the night sky on the Fourth of July. May we implore Mary, the Immaculate Conception, the patroness of our country, to intercede for our religious liberty. May we never take for granted our right to openly, publicly, and proudly practice our faith--not just in the privacy of our homes and in church on Sunday, but in the way we run our family businesses and the faith-based institutions that serve the public at large. And let us do all we can to preserve that right for future generations.

For more information, the author recommends the following resources:

The Archdiocese of Washington's mandate lawsuit website:

The USCCB's religious liberty website:

Reading I would recommend for adults, teens, and older school-aged children:

-Robert Bolt's classic play about St. Thomas More, A Man for All Seasons (or the film adaptation, which won three Academy Awards and made it  in the Vatican's list of Greatest Religious Movies of All Time)

-United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Our First, Most Cherished Liberty: A Statement on Religious Liberty, online at:

-A book I'd recommend for children ages 8 and up is The Outlaws of Ravenhurst, by M. Imelda Wallace. This exciting adventure takes place in Catholic colonial Maryland and in Scotland during the suppression of the Catholic Church. It illustrates the fervent faith and heroic virtue that is sometimes called for in the fight for religious liberty in a way that engages young readers. Though out of print, it is available used on Amazon, and it may be in some parish libraries.

Topics: Abortion , Church teaching , Contraception , Current Events , Religious freedom

Dr. Sarah Smith Bartel earned a doctorate in moral theology and ethics from The Catholic University of America; she specialized in marriage, family, sexual ethics, and bioethics. She is a member of St. Andrew parish in Sumner, WA, where she lives with her husband and four children.

View all articles by Sarah Bartel

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