Religious Freedom

“Reason recognizes in religious freedom a fundamental human right which reflects the highest human dignity, the ability to seek the truth and conform to it, and recognizes in it a condition which is indispensable to the ability to deploy all of one’s own potentiality. Religious freedom is not only that of private thought or worship. It is the liberty to live, both privately and publicly, according to the ethical principals resulting from found truth.”

 –Pope Francis, Speech, June 20th, 2014

The Right to Religious Liberty

In Catholic teaching, the Second Vatican Council “declare[d] 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.) 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 encompasses our ability to contribute freely to the common good of all Americans.

International Threats to Religious Liberty

“We also evangelize when we attempt to confront the various challenges which can arise.   On occasion these may take the form of veritable attacks on religious freedom or new persecutions directed against Christians; in some countries these have reached alarming levels of hatred and violence.” –Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 61

Please see “International Threats to Religious Liberty” for more information on the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, Pakistan, India, Mexico and in other places around the world.

Domestic Threats to Religious Liberty

HHS mandate for sterilization, contraception, and abortion-inducing drugs. The mandate of the Department of Health and Human Services forces religious institutions to facilitate and/or fund a product contrary to their own moral teaching. Further, the federal government tries to define which religious institutions are “religious enough” to merit protection of their religious liberty.

Catholic foster care and adoption services. Boston, San Francisco, the District of Columbia, and the State of Illinois have driven local Catholic Charities out of the business of providing adoption or foster care services–by revoking their licenses, by ending their government contracts, or both–because those Charities refused to place children with same-sex couples or unmarried opposite-sex couples who cohabit.

State immigration laws. Several states have passed laws that forbid what they deem as “harboring” of undocumented immigrants–and what the Church deems Christian charity and pastoral care to these immigrants.

Discrimination against small church congregations. New York City adopted a policy that barred the Bronx Household of Faith and other churches from renting public schools on weekends for worship services, even though nonreligious groups could rent the same schools for many other uses.

Discrimination against Catholic humanitarian services. After years of excellent performance by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) in administering contract services for victims of human trafficking, the federal government changed its contract specifications to require MRS to provide or refer for contraceptive and abortion services in violation of Catholic teaching.

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.

Please see “Domestic Threats to Religious Liberty” for more information on the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, Pakistan, India, Mexico and in other places around the world.

Marriage and Religious Liberty

The Catholic Church teaches: “Marriage and the family are institutions that must be promoted and defended from every possible misrepresentation of their true nature, since whatever is injurious to them is injurious to society itself” (Sacramentum Caritatis, 29). The following examples illustrate that efforts to redefine marriage are harming the religious freedom of believers in the true definition of marriage.


How are marriage and religious liberty connected?

Marriage (the union of one man and one woman as husband and wife) and religious liberty are two distinct goods that are also related to each other. The protection of each good follows from the duty to protect the inviolable dignity of the human person. But even more directly, the legal protection of marriage as the union of one man and one woman also protects the religious freedom of those who adhere to that vision of marriage.

How could changing the legal definition of marriage have any effect on religious liberty?

Changing the legal term “marriage” is not one change in the law, but rather amounts to thousands of changes at once. The term “marriage” can be found in family law, employment law, trusts and estates, healthcare law, tax law, property law, and many others. These laws affect and pervasively regulate religious institutions, such as churches, religiously-affiliated schools, hospitals, and families. When Church and State agree on what the legal term “marriage” means (the union of one man and one woman), there is harmony between the law and religious institutions. When Church and State disagree on what the term “marriage” means (e.g., if the State redefines marriage in order to recognize so-called same-sex “marriage”), conflict results on a massive scale between the law and religious institutions and families, as the State will apply various sanctions against the Church for its refusal to comply with the State’s definition. Religious liberty is then threatened.

But would ministers really be forced to officiate at the “wedding” of two persons of the same-sex?

In 2014, two Protestant ministers (a husband and a wife) who operate a wedding chapel in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho said they would not officiate at a same-sex “wedding.” City officials informed the ministers that their refusal to officiate violated the city’s ordinance outlawing discrimination in public accommodations on the basis of “sexual orientation.” The city eventually declined to prosecute the ministers. But this situation is rare–it may recur in for-profit wedding chapels, but is still unlikely to occur at all with respect to ministers operating in houses of worship. The much more likely and pervasive threats to religious liberty posed by the legal redefinition of marriage concern people and institutions compelled by the government against conscience, in various contexts, to provide to same-sex couples the special treatment previously reserved to actually married couples.

What’s the real threat to religious liberty posed by same-sex “marriage”?

The legal redefinition of marriage can threaten the religious liberty of religious institutions and individuals in potentially numerous ways, involving various forms of government sanction, ranging from court orders compelling action against conscience, to awards of money damages and other financial penalties, to marginalization in public life:

Compelled Association: the government could attempt to force religious institutions to retain as leaders, employees, or members those who obtain legalized same-sex “marriage”; or to obligate wedding-related businesses to provide services for same-sex “couples.”

–Compelled Provision of Special Benefits: the government could try to force religious institutions to extend any special benefit they afford to actual marriage to same-sex “marriage” as well.

–Punishment for Speech: political action or conversation reflecting moral opposition to same-sex “marriage” would represent actionable “harassment” or “discrimination,” or forbidden “hate speech.”

–Exclusion from Accreditation and Licensure: those who adhere to the definition of marriage could be excluded from participation in highly regulated professions and quasi-governmental functions, as licenses are revoked and religious institutions lose accredited status.

-Exclusion from Government Funding, Religious Accommodations, and Other Benefits: those who adhere to the definition of marriage could be excluded from receiving government grants and contracts to provide secular social services, and from various tax exemptions.

Have any of these threats come to pass?

Yes. Examples include, but are not limited to, the following: florist who declined to provide flowers for a same-sex “wedding” was sued by the state Attorney General and lost at the trial court level (Washington, 2015); Gordon College, a Christian college with a policy prohibiting same-sex sexual conduct, was given a year by its accreditor to report on how its non-discrimination policies met the accreditor’s standards for accreditation (Massachusetts, 2014); baker who declined to make a cake for a “wedding reception” of two men lost his case before two state administrative tribunals (Colorado, 2014); photographer who declined to take pictures of a same-sex “commitment” ceremony was sued and lost her case at the state supreme court (New Mexico, 2013); legal action was taken against a Catholic high school for firing a teacher in a same-sex relationship (Ohio, 2013); bed-and-breakfast owners who declined to host a reception for a same-sex “wedding” had to pay $30,000 and agree to never host wedding receptions again (Vermont, 2012); Catholic hospital was sued by employee for not providing health insurance for the employee’s same-sex “spouse” (New York, 2012); University administrator was placed on administrative leave for signing petition to place marriage redefinition law on a state ballot (Maryland, 2012); high school student was threatened with suspension for writing school newspaper op-ed opposing adoption by persons of the same sex (Wisconsin, 2012); public notaries were told by state officials that if they perform any weddings, they must provide wedding services to persons in same-sex relationships or face a human rights violation (Maine, 2012); Catholic adoption agencies lost their funding and licenses to provide adoptions and/or foster care for refusal to place children with same-sex couples (Catholic Charities in Boston and San Francisco [2006], DC [2010], and Illinois [2011]). These threats have been manifest in other countries as well, often to an even more persistent and invasive extent.

At the federal legislative level, the Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act of 2015 has recently been introduced in both Houses of Congress to try to ensure that no adoption agencies are excluded from serving the most vulnerable children in our society. Further, the Marriage and Religious Freedom Act would bar the federal government from discriminating against individuals and organizations based upon their religiously belief or moral conviction that marriage is the union of one man and one woman or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage. The Act provides broad protections against adverse federal actions directed toward individuals and organizations that act on such beliefs.

Legislation called the Marriage and Religious Freedom Act has recently been introduced in the U.S. Congress to try to remedy some of these problems and ensure that people can live out their beliefs on marriage.

We are Catholics. We are Americans. We are proud to be both.