“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.”
U.S. Constitution, First Amendment
The United States Constitution’s First Amendment gives two guarantees to religion. There can be no law establishing a state religion and there can be no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion. Much has been said and written concerning the “wall of separation between church and state.” A term used by Thomas Jefferson but not found in the Constitution.
Most of those words concern the “establishment clause,” but the “free exercise clause” has received much less attention. That is about to change.
An increasing number of laws and regulations are infringing upon our right to exercise our religion and our religious liberties under the Constitution are being increasingly eroded away. Specifically Catholics and Catholic institutions find their religious freedoms under assault in a number of areas:
• The Federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has issued regulations that would mandate the coverage of contraception (including abortifacients) and sterilization in all private health insurance plans. A so-called religious exclusion is essentially meaningless and does nothing to protect Catholic and other insurers or individuals with moral objections.
• Both HHS and USAID are increasingly requiring Catholic and other non-government agencies receiving funds to include condom distribution as part of full reproductive services.
• The Justice Department has stopped defending the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and has filed legal briefs claiming that supporting the law could only be motivated by bias and prejudice.
• In a case now before the Supreme Court the Justice Department is attacking the “ministerial exemption”.
• In New York and other states county clerks face legal action for refusing to participate in same sex unions.
In each of these instances and others, Catholics and other individuals and institutions are being prohibited from the free practice of religion by being forced by government actions to participate in or provide support in situations that are in conflict with their religious beliefs.
Rights are seldom abolished outright. They are eroded a little at a time.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is so concerned about these developments that an Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty has been appointed to work with national organizations and ecumenical and interreligious partners to form a united and forceful front in defense of religious freedom in our nation.
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