Last week the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), and its Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty released a lengthy statement entitled “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” the latest manifestation of the tensions between the USCCB and President Barack Obama’s administration. Calling religious liberty the “first freedom,” and more than just “freedom of worship,” the statement explains that:
What is at stake is whether America will continue to have a free, creative, and robust civil society—or whether the state alone will determine who gets to contribute to the common good, and how they get to do it. Religious believers are part of American civil society, which includes neighbors helping each other, community associations, fraternal service clubs, sports leagues, and youth groups. All these Americans make their contribution to our common life, and they do not need the permission of the government to do so. Restrictions on religious liberty are an attack on civil society and the American genius for voluntary associations. [...]
This is not a Catholic issue. This is not a Jewish issue. This is not an Orthodox, Mormon, or Muslim issue. It is an American issue.
Highlighting several incidents (e.g. the Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate for contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs, its decision to end funding to the USCCB to help victims of human trafficking, and New York City’s ban on churches renting out public schools), the statement offers a remedy for what it deems a fundamental injustice:
It is a sobering thing to contemplate our government enacting an unjust law. An unjust law cannot be obeyed. In the face of an unjust law, an accommodation is not to be sought, especially by resorting to equivocal words and deceptive practices. If we face today the prospect of unjust laws, then Catholics in America, in solidarity with our fellow citizens, must have the courage not to obey them. No American desires this. No Catholic welcomes it. But if it should fall upon us, we must discharge it as a duty of citizenship and an obligation of faith. [...]
Both our civil year and liturgical year point us on various occasions to our heritage of freedom. This year, we propose a special “fortnight for freedom,” in which bishops in their own dioceses might arrange special events to highlight the importance of defending our first freedom. Our Catholic institutions also could be encouraged to do the same, especially in cooperation with other Christians, Jews, people of other faiths, and indeed, all who wish to defend our most cherished freedom.
We suggest that the fourteen days from June 21—the vigil of the Feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More—to July 4, Independence Day, be dedicated to this “fortnight for freedom”—a great hymn of prayer for our country. Our liturgical calendar celebrates a series of great martyrs who remained faithful in the face of persecution by political power—St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More, St. John the Baptist, SS. Peter and Paul, and the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome. Culminating on Independence Day, this special period of prayer, study, catechesis, and public action would emphasize both our Christian and American heritage of liberty. Dioceses and parishes around the country could choose a date in that period for special events that would constitute a great national campaign of teaching and witness for religious liberty.
Read more about the politics of religious freedom in our ongoing discussion series, including Samuel Moyn’s post on American Catholic officials’ relatively recent about-face on the issue of religious freedom.