A timely piece to think seriously about daily is the notion of religious freedom not only around the globe, but also and significantly here in the USA. Today, the Most Reverend William E. Lori addressed the Judiciary Committee of the United States House of Representatives, Subcommittee on the Constitution. Here are a few paragraphs (the link to the full text is noted below):

liberty is not merely one right among others, but enjoys a certain primacy. As
the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI recently explained: “It 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.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Address to Diplomatic Corps,
10 Jan. 2011
.) The late
Pope John Paul II taught that “the most fundamental human freedom [is] that of
practicing one’s faith openly, which for human beings is their reason for
.” (Pope John Paul II, Address to Diplomatic Corps, 13 Jan. 1996
, No. 9.) Not coincidentally, religious
liberty is first on the list in the Bill of Rights, the charter of our Nation’s
most cherished and fundamental freedoms. The First Amendment begins: “Congress
shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the
free exercise thereof….” It is commonly, and with justice, called our “First

Religious liberty is also prior to the state itself. It is not merely a privilege that the government grants us and so may take away at will. Instead, religious liberty is inherent in our very humanity, hard-wired into each and every one of us b our Creator. Thus government has a perennial obligation to acknowledge and protect religious liberty as fundamental, no matter the moral and political trends of the moment. This insight as well is reflected in the laws and traditions of our country from its very inception. The Declaration of Independence boldly proclaimed as a self-evident truth that our inalienable rights are “endowed by our Creator“–not by the State.

Religious freedom is most commonly understood as an individual right, and it certainly is that. Religious freedom proceeds from the dignity of each person, and so protects each person individually. “[T]he 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” (Second Vatican Council, 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.” (Ibid.) Congress has shown special vigilance in protecting these individual rights of conscience, for example, in the form of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which forbids the federal government from imposing any “substantial burdens” on religious exercise absent the most compelling reasons.

But religious freedom also belongs to churches and other religious institutions, comprised of citizens who are believers and who seek, not to create a theocracy, but rather to influence their culture from within. The distinction between Church and State, between God and Caesar, remains “fundamental to Christianity” (Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, No. 28). We look to the State not to impose religion but to guarantee religious freedom, and to promote harmony among followers of different religions. The Church has “a proper independence and is structured on the basis of her faith as a community the State must recognize” (Ibid.). An indispensable element of this independence is the right of churches “not to be hindered, either by legal measures or by administrative action on the part of government, in the selection, training, appointment, and transferral of their own ministers” (Second Vatican Council, Dignitatis Humanae, No. 4). We are grateful that federal courts in the United States–at least to date–have uniformly recognized this core protection under the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment.

Finally, the Church teaches that these rights of religious freedom–prior to all other rights and even to the State, and protecting both individuals and institutions–are held not just by Catholics, but by all people, by virtue of their common humanity. Government has the duty “to assume the safeguard of the religious freedom of all its citizens, in an effective manner, by just laws and by other appropriate means” (Second Vatican Council, Dignitatis Humanae, No. 6 (emphasis added). Even in societies where one particular religion predominates, it is “imperative that the right of all citizens and religious communities to religious freedom should be recognized and made effective in practice” (Ibid.). The United States stands strongly for the principle that these rights of freedom are also rights of equality–that government should not impose any special civil disadvantages or otherwise discriminate against its citizens based on religion. And although it may not have always lived up to this or other religious freedom principles in practice, our country’s unique capacity for self-correction has always provided avenues to repair to these principles that have made it a great nation.

Read the entire testimony here: Bp Lori’s Testimony on Religious Freedom.pdf

William E. Lori
Bishop of Bridgeport
Chair, Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

26 October 2011