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Religious Freedom is a Natural Right


by Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson

Our duties and rights in relation to religious liberty precede the government and go beyond mere toleration

Carl A. Anderson

Recently, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued new rules under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Many hoped that the Obama administration would abandon the so-called HHS mandate of contraception, sterilization and abortion-causing drugs in employee health care plans, considering the extraordinary criticism that’s been given by a wide spectrum of religious leaders. Others hoped the rule would move beyond exempting only houses of worship. But the new rules have done neither. Instead, the government stated that “the universe of employer plans that would qualify for the exemption” would not be expanded “beyond that which was intended in the 2012 final rules.”

Since the legislation was first introduced more than a year ago, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has repeatedly said that the HHS mandate violates our fundamental right to the free exercise of religion.

Historian Steven Waldman, in his book Founding Faith: How Our Founding Fathers Forged a Radical New Approach to Religious Liberty (2009), reminds us that from the time of the Declaration of Independence to the Bill of Rights and shortly thereafter, a transformation took place in the United States in the way that religion was treated. In drafting these documents, the Founding Fathers rejected the old European model of an established state religion in which religious minorities were only granted some level of toleration by government.

Thomas Paine put the matter very clearly in his book Rights of Man (1791): “Toleration is not the opposite of intolerance but the counterfeit of it. Both are despotisms: the one assumes to itself the right of withholding liberty of conscience, the other of granting it.”

Likewise, James Madison and others would not accept the idea that Americans were to petition their government for permission to exercise their religion. Instead, Madison argued that the “free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience,” was a “natural and absolute right.” According to Waldman, this shifted the terms of debate “from toleration to liberty.”

In his famous Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (1785), Madison wrote: “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. This right is in its nature an unalienable right.”

Madison’s concern went beyond diversity or pluralism to something far more important. “It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage, and such only, as he believes to be acceptable to him,” he wrote. “This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governor of the Universe.”

Today, we must ask whether we see in the intransigence of government a regression — a shift away from liberty first and a return to a form of government-granted toleration, which is followed quickly by government intolerance of our free exercise of religion.

Though we now face unprecedented challenges to religious liberty, history tells us that the cause of freedom in America is not an isolated event, but a journey. This is the lesson of the great Civil Rights Movement of the last century, which told us to envision a day when “all God’s children” could say, “Thank God Almighty we are free at last.”

Every legal system rests upon a certain vision of the human person. Our laws affecting religious liberty are no exception. As we look to safeguard our liberty, it is essential that we do so with a clear explanation of how freedom is rooted in the dignity of each person.

As Madison observed in The Federalist Papers No. 51, “What is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?” And since that is true, in the days ahead our country will need the clear voice and enduring wisdom of the Catholic Church.

Vivat Jesus!