What do we mean by religious liberty?

In Catholic teaching, the Second Vatican Council “declared that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power. This means no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.” (Dignitatis Humanae, No. 2.) Religious liberty is protected in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and in federal and state laws. Religious liberty includes more than our ability to go to Mass on Sunday or pray the Rosary at home. It also includes our ability to contribute freely to the common good of all Americans.

What is the First Amendment?

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states the following: “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.”

What does “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” mean?

This phrase, known as the “Establishment Clause,” began as a ban on Congress’ either establishing a national religion or interfering with the established religions of the states. It has since been interpreted to forbid state establishments of religion, governmental preference (at any level) of one religion over another, and direct government funding of religion.

What does “prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” mean?

This phrase is known as the “Free Exercise Clause.” It generally protects citizens and institutions from government interference with the exercise of their religious beliefs. It sometimes mandates the accommodation of religious practices, even when such practices conflict with federal, state, or local laws.

What did our early American leaders say about religious freedom?

  • George Washington “The conscientious scruples of all men should be treated with great delicacy and tenderness; and it is my wish and desire, that the laws may always be… extensively accommodated to them…” (Letter to the Annual Meeting of Quakers, 1789.)
  • Thomas Jefferson “No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of the civil authority.” (Letter to New London Methodist, 1809.)
  • James Madison “We hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth that religion, or the duty which we owe our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence. The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.” (Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessment, 1785.) (Internal citation and quotations omitted.)

Who have been heroes of religious liberty in the Church?

  • Saint Thomas More St. Thomas More was an English Catholic lawyer who served as Lord Chancellor and a close advisor to King Henry VIII. More opposed the king’s separation from the Catholic Church and his naming himself as Supreme Head of the Church of England. More was imprisoned for his refusal to take the oath required by a law that disparaged papal power and required acknowledging the children of Henry and Anne Boleyn (she was the king’s second wife after his divorce from Catherine of Aragon) as legitimate heirs to the throne. In 1535, St Thomas More was tried for treason, convicted on perjured testimony, and beheaded. He is the patron saint of religious freedom.
  • Saint John Fisher John Fisher was an English Catholic cardinal, academic, and martyr. Fisher was executed by order of King Henry VIII during the English Reformation for refusing to accept the king as Supreme Head of the Church of England and for upholding the Catholic Church’s doctrine of papal primacy.
  • Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Elizabeth Ann Seton was the first native-born U.S. citizen to be canonized by the Catholic Church. In 1809, Seton founded the first American congregation of Religious Sisters, the Sisters of Charity. She also established the first parochial school for girls in the U.S. in Emmitsburg, Maryland in 1810. Seton’s efforts initiated the parochial school system in America and opened the first free Catholic schools for the poor.
  • Saint Katharine Drexel Katharine Drexel was a religious sister, heiress, philanthropist, and educator. She dedicated herself and her inheritance to the needs of oppressed Native Americans and African-Americans in the western and southwestern United States. She was a vocal advocate of racial tolerance and established a religious congregation, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Their mission was to teach African-Americans and later American Indians. She also financed more than sixty missions and schools around the United States, in addition to founding Xavier University of Louisiana—the only historically African-American Catholic university in the United States to date.
  • John Courtney Murray, SJ Father Murray was an American Jesuit priest and theologian who was known for his efforts to reconcile Catholicism and religious pluralism. His main focus was on the relationship between religious freedom and the institutions of a democratically structured modern state. During the Second Vatican Council, he played a key role in the Council’s groundbreaking Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae.

Historically, what significant religious liberty issues have affected Catholics in our country?

  • Settlers introduced equal treatment of Catholic Schools Catholicism to the English colonies with the founding of the Province of Maryland from England in 1634. However, the 1646 defeat of the Royalists in the English Civil War led to stringent laws against Catholic education and the extradition of known Jesuits from Maryland, as well as the destruction of the school they founded. During the greater part of the Maryland colonial period, Jesuits continued to conduct Catholic schools clandestinely. The American Revolution brought historic changes, and in 1782, Catholics in Philadelphia opened St. Mary’s School, considered the first parochial school in the U.S. In 1791, the ratification of the Bill of Rights, with the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom, helped Catholics further cement the establishment of Catholic schools.
  • Regardless, anti-Catholic sentiment in the late nineteenth century led to opposition to parochial schools. State governments opposed providing funds to aid students attending parochial schools, which Catholics founded largely in response to the requirement to pray and read from Protestant Bibles in public schools. Some Members of Congress attempted to block all government aid to religiously affiliated schools with the proposed “Blaine Amendment” in 1875. This constitutional amendment was never ratified at the federal level, but many state legislatures adopted similar legislation and amendments. Those “little Blaine” amendments are still in place in the constitutions of about thirty-seven states, and still operate to block Catholic school students from equal participation in government educational benefits.
  • Anti-Catholic bigotry in presidential campaigns During the 1884 presidential campaign, candidate James G. Blaine (who proposed the “Blaine Amendment” in Congress) attended a meeting in a church in New York at which a minister chided those who had left the Republican Party by stating, “We don’t propose to leave our party and identify with the party whose antecedents are rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” Blaine sat quietly during the anti-Catholic remark. The scene was reported widely in the press, and it cost Blaine in the election, particularly in New York City.
    • During the 1928 presidential campaign, Al Smith, a Catholic who had been elected governor of New York three times, was the Democratic candidate for president. It is widely believed that Smith’s Catholic beliefs played a key role in his loss of the 1928 presidential election, as anti-Catholic sentiment among the 3 electorates was strong. Many feared that Smith would answer to the pope and not the constitution if elected president.
    • During the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism became a major issue in the election. Like Al Smith, Kennedy faced charges that he would “take orders from the Pope” and could not uphold the oath of office.
  • Establishment of diplomatic relations with the Vatican In the first years of the United States, the new Republic had contacts with the Papal States. However, in 1867, Congress prohibited the financing of any diplomatic post to the Papal authority. This began a period of over seventy years when the U.S. did not have a diplomatic representative to the Pope, coinciding with a period of strong anti-Catholicism in the U.S. In 1940, President Roosevelt sent a “personal representative” to the Pope who served for ten years. However, when President Truman nominated an ambassador to the Vatican in 1951, opposition mounted, and President Truman abandoned the effort. Presidents Nixon and Carter sent personal representatives to the Vatican. In 1984, President Reagan announced that full diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the Vatican had been established, and the U.S. has continued to send ambassadors to the Vatican since then.

How was religious liberty addressed at the Second Vatican Council (Dignitatis Humanae)?

Dignitatis Humanae provides that “the exercise of religion, of its very nature, consists before all else in those internal, voluntary and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God.” (Dignitatis Humanae, No. 3.) Therefore, individuals are “not to be forced to act in manner contrary to [their] conscience” nor “restrained from acting in accordance with [their] conscience…” (Id.)

The Second Vatican Council also “declared that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.” (Dignitatis Humanae, No. 2.)

Further, Dignitatis Humanae provides that “religious communities [] have the right not to be hindered, either by legal measures or by administrative action on the part of government, in the selection, training, appointment, and transferal of their own Ministers . . ..” (Dignitatis Humanae, No. 4.)

Where are the roots of religious liberty?

Religious liberty is inherent in our very humanity, hard-wired into each and every one of us by our Creator. Religious liberty is also prior to the state itself. It is not merely a privilege that the government grants us and that can be taken away at will.

What has the Church said about religious liberty since Vatican II, for example, through Saint John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis?

  • Saint John Paul II “The most fundamental human freedom [is] that of practicing one’s faith openly, which for human beings is their reason for living.” (Address to Diplomatic Corps, 13 Jan. 1996, No. 9.)
  • Pope Benedict XVI “[Religious freedom] is indeed the first of human rights, not only because it was historically the first to be recognized but also because it touches the constitutive dimension of man, his relation with his Creator.” (Address to Diplomatic Corps, 10 Jan. 2011.)
  • Pope Francis “American Catholics are committed to building a society which is truly tolerant and inclusive, to safeguarding the rights of individuals and communities, and to rejecting every form of unjust discrimination. With countless other people of good will, they are likewise concerned that efforts to build a just and wisely ordered society respect their deepest concerns and their right to religious liberty. That freedom remains one of America’s most precious possessions. And, as my brothers, the United States Bishops, have reminded us, all are called to be vigilant, precisely as good citizens, to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.” (Address at South Lawn of the White House, 23 Sept. 2015.)

How have religious liberty questions affected other religious bodies?

  • Discrimination against small church congregations: In 1994, New York City’s Department of Education (DOE) denied the request of the Bronx Household of Faith and sixty other churches to rent space from public schools on weekends for worship services, even though non-religious groups could rent the same schools for scores of other uses. The City had been investigating what the churches do in the public schools and had made its own assessments of whether the meetings constituted a “worship service” or not. In 2012, a federal district court issued a permanent injunction, ruling that the City’s policy violated the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. However, the City won its case on appeal, and in March 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take the case. Now it is up to the Mayor of New York City to decide whether to reverse the policy or to render these small church congregations homeless for their worship services. While the DOE’s discrimination would not frequently affect Catholic parishes, which generally own their own buildings, it would be devastating to many smaller congregations. It is a simple case of discrimination against religious believers.
  • Christian students on campus: In its over-100-year history, the University of California Hastings College of Law has denied student organization status to only one group, the Christian Legal Society, because it required its leaders to be Christian and to abstain from sexual activity outside of marriage.
  • Religious speech in the public square: In Minneapolis, the city’s Park and Recreation Board effectively exiled a group of Christians handing out Bibles during the Twin Cities Pride Festival to an isolated “no pride zone”—a remote and virtually untraveled corner of the city park where the festival was taking place. In Phoenix, a local resident was told that, in order to informally share his Christian faith at South Mountain Community College, he would have to pay a fee, take out special insurance, and give the school two weeks’ notice. In Cheyenne, members of the Wyoming State Building Commission have complied with a federal court order by admitting they unconstitutionally violated the free speech rights of WyWatch Family Action by first approving, then removing the group’s pro-life signs from a gallery at the state capitol. However, officials then began seeking other ways to silence pro-life speech, including prohibiting all outside groups from participating in the gallery.
  • Religious worship in one’s own home: A Santeria priest in Texas was unable to perform certain religious rituals in his own home because of discriminatory state action. In an important ruling under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a unanimous panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found in favor of the Santeria priest. The court held that city ordinances forbidding the slaughter of certain animals prevented the Santeria priest from performing ceremonies essential to his faith, causing a substantial burden on his religious exercise.
  • The ministerial exception: The U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) attempted to undermine religious liberty in Hosanna Tabor v. EEOC, by attacking the “ministerial exception.” The ministerial exception allows religious organizations the right to choose their own ministers without government interference. The DoJ could have taken the position that the ministerial exception, though generally providing strong protection for the right of religious groups to choose their ministers without government interference, didn’t apply in the case before the court. Instead, DoJ needlessly attacked the very existence of the exception, in opposition to a vast coalition of religious groups urging its preservation through their amicus curiae briefs. Fortunately, the Supreme Court in a 9-0 decision agreed with religious groups in reaffirming the ministerial exception and rejecting DoJ’s position as “extreme,” “remarkable,” and as having “no merit.”