Freedom of religion: It should mean more than worshipping freely Print
Written by Mary C. Uhler   
Thursday, Jan. 09, 2014 -- 12:00 AM

Many of our ancestors came to the United States to enjoy freedom of religion. They lived in countries where they were not able to worship freely and some may have been persecuted for their beliefs.

For many of the early settlers of our country, freedom of religion didn’t just mean being able to attend the church of their choice, for example, Catholics going to Mass on Sunday at a Catholic church.

It also meant being able to wear religious symbols such as crucifixes in public, praying at public gatherings, talking about one’s faith in public, sending children to Catholic schools, and receiving health care at Catholic hospitals.

Being good Catholic employers

Many Catholics started their lives in this country as farmers and workers in factories or other businesses. But eventually many of them became owners of farms and businesses. As owners, they wanted to put their Catholic teaching into action by providing just wages and good benefits to their employees.

The Catholic Church itself became an employer in its institutions. At first, priests and members of religious orders primarily worked for the Church. But increasingly, especially in the 20th Century, more lay people were hired by Church institutions, including schools, colleges, hospitals and other health care facilities, and social service agencies. Not all of those employees were Catholic, but they realized that they were working for the Church and would have to adhere to the Church’s policies and procedures.

Confining freedom of religion to worship

In recent years in our country, however, there seem to be more attempts to confine “freedom of religion” only to freedom of worship. We are free to attend the church of our choice, but we must put a dividing line between our faith on Sunday and our practice of our faith throughout the week.

To be clear, the First Amendment of the Constitution says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Note that this amendment says “the free exercise” of religion. It does not say “free worship.” It seems to me that “free exercise” should have a very broad scope, pertaining to all aspects of our lives.

Objectionable provisions of Affordable Care Act

One of the most controversial and dangerous attempts to curtail freedom of religion has been implementation of provisions of the Affordable Care Act by the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). While the Catholic Church has long advocated extending health care benefits to all citizens, it continues to oppose measures requiring the Church itself and other Catholic employers to provide sterilization, abortion-inducing drugs, and contraceptives to their employees.

Although the Obama Administration attempted to make an accommodation for Catholic employers by having these morally objectionable services provided by insurance companies and not directly by employers, many Catholic employers still do not want to provide objectionable services indirectly. Over 90 lawsuits have been filed objecting to the HHS mandate.

As of January 1, organizations such as Church-sponsored universities, hospitals, and social services are facing a fine of $100 per day or $36,500 a year per employee if they provide health coverage that does not include contraceptives, abortion-causing drugs, or sterilization.

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has asked President Obama to temporarily exempt religious institutions from these crippling fines.

Supreme  Court to hear cases

Archbishop Kurtz noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear two cases related to the HHS mandate.

We hope the Supreme Court will consider the broader application of our Constitution’s “free exercise” of religion clause. We should be able to enjoy the freedom to practice our religious faith not only in private in our homes and churches, but also in every aspect of our lives.

Jesus Christ told his disciples to go into the world and preach the Gospel to every creature (Mark 16:15). As members of the Church, we are Christ’s witnesses in the world.

We should not have to divide our beliefs into private and public spheres. Our beliefs should permeate everything we do, including offering health care services which follow Catholic teaching.