Maryland bishops warn of rising restrictions on religious freedom

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Religious freedom is fundamental to a free society, but some political and cultural trends are threatening that freedom, the Catholic bishops of Maryland said in a new statement.

“Efforts to restrict the rights of individuals and institutions because of their religious or moral beliefs are on the rise here in Maryland and around the nation,” the bishops wrote.

“Religious liberty—a right rooted in our human dignity and protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution—is being silently and subtly eroded.”

The 12-page document, titled “The Most Sacred of all Property: Religious Freedom and the People of Maryland,” was signed by Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington; Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, the apostolic administrator of Baltimore, and Bishop W. Francis Malooly of Wilmington.

The document took its title from American Founding Father James Madison, who called conscience “the most sacred of all property” and its exercise “a natural and unalienable right.”

Religious liberty is a “foundational element of a vibrant democracy” that helps guarantee other freedoms, the bishops underscored. 

“The only way to preserve it is through the vigilance of concerned citizens and their willingness to stand up for this right.”

While Americans presently enjoy many freedoms, there has recently been a “subtle promotion” of the idea that religious freedom should be restricted only to Sunday worship. 

“The right to exercise our faith and follow our conscience in all aspects of our lives is a right increasingly viewed with hostility.”

Health care professionals have come under pressure to perform abortions or distribute drugs that violate their pro-life principles, the bishops noted. The Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate requiring health plans to cover contraception and sterilization is another example of this threat.

The 600 Catholic hospitals in the United States are coming under increased scrutiny for “providing care in accordance with their—our—religious beliefs.” The American Civil Liberties Union has also asked the federal government to investigate Catholic hospitals for declining to provide abortion and emergency contraception, alleging that the hospitals are violating federal law.

On the efforts to redefine marriage, the bishops said that these initiatives put at risk the religious liberties of individuals and institutions that acknowledge heterosexual marriage “not only as a fact of nature but also as an article of faith.”

Legislation in Maryland to recognize same-sex “marriage,” which failed to pass in 2011, would have done “grave harm” to religious liberty because it provided no protections to individuals and only limited protections to institutions to allow them to maintain their “sincerely held beliefs about marriage.”

Religious business owners such as florists, bakers, musicians or photographers would not have been able to decline to participate in a same-sex “marriage” ceremony. 

After the District of Columbia passed a law recognizing same-sex “marriages,” the district government told the Archdiocese of Washington’s Catholic Charities that it could not continue its 80-year-old partnership in adoption and foster care services because the archdiocese would place children in homes only with a mother and a father.

The Maryland bishops also warned of a “growing trend of government intrusion into the institutional and administrative life of the Church.”

Proposed Connecticut legislation in 2009 provided “one of the most alarming” examples of this trend.

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The legislation would have allowed the state government to mandate the structure and organization of Catholic parishes. It also would have removed many administrative and pastoral responsibilities from the pastor and placed them in the hands of committees defined by the legislature.

The bishops’ statement hearkened back to the Maryland colony’s Toleration Act of 1649, the first American law to protect religious freedom. The bishops recounted how this practice ended only decades later when the colony was placed under royal control and the Church of England became the established religion.

This history teaches that religious liberty requires “constant vigilance and protection, or it will disappear.”

The bishops stressed that prayer and education are needed to counter threats to religious liberty and gave the faithful practical suggestions, noting that Catholics should first thank God for religious liberty.

They should also pray for elected leaders and public officials whose actions affect religious freedom, and for those who disdain or do not appreciate that freedom, the bishops said.

The Catholic community must also stay informed about threats to religious liberty through media like diocesan newspapers. The bishops advised readers of their document to share it with others. 

Political action is also necessary to defend religious liberty, they said. Maryland Catholics should vote in every election. They should register with the Maryland Catholic Conference’s Catholic Advocacy network and participate in religious liberty events like Catholic Lobby Night held in Annapolis every President’s Day.

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“Everyone has the right to live in accordance with his or her particular religious beliefs, subject only to such limits as are necessary for the safe operation of society,” they said. “Society as a whole benefits when all citizens in our pluralistic democracy—including religious citizens and institutions—remain free to participate in public life and to do so in accordance with their sincerely held beliefs.”

Religious freedom upholds human dignity and is integral to the establishment of a good and just society, the statement said. It invoked religious groups’ work to abolish slavery, work with the mentally or physically disabled, and religious involvement in labor rights.

The document referenced the work of the civil rights movement, which made an “explicitly religious call” for equal treatment for African Americans. The bishops cited Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s description of churches as “the conscience of the state.”

“Rev. King’s message of equality and justice thus presupposed and deliberately relied upon a free and flourishing religious tradition to bring about its noble goals,” they said.