A few weeks ago, while at a meeting in Atlanta, I had the opportunity to visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site. I especially enjoyed sitting in the Ebenezer Baptist Church where Reverend Dr. King served as co-pastor. His recorded sermons were piped through the sanctuary there and I listened for quite some time to his stirring words. He awakened consciences and called upon America to honor its heritage of liberty. In his famous “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” in 1963, Reverend Dr. King boldly stated that “the goal of America is freedom.”
In the face of the unprecedented attack by the federal government on one of our most cherished freedoms, the freedom to practice one’s religion without government interference, I have been inspired by the words of Martin Luther King. It would be easy to sit back and not get involved in fighting the government’s attempt to force us to facilitate and fund services which violate our religious beliefs. But then I think of Dr. King. He did not sit back in the face of racial discrimination and segregation. Instead, he led the civil rights movement in our country.
Along with my brother bishops, I have been actively involved in efforts to protect our religious liberty. We are not sitting back. We have pursued various avenues to correct the problem of the over-reaching US Department of Health and Human Services without litigation. Our efforts with the White House and the Congress have not succeeded. So now, a number of our dioceses, Catholic schools and universities, Catholic health systems, and Catholic charitable organizations are pursuing the judicial route.
On May 21st, the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Catholic Charities of the diocese, Saint Anne Home and Retirement Community, Franciscan Alliance, the University of Saint Francis, and Our Sunday Visitor filed a lawsuit against various government defendants, seeking justice from U.S. District Court (Northern District of Indiana, Fort Wayne Division). The University of Notre Dame has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court (Northern District of Indiana, South Bend Division). We are in deep solidarity in our conviction that the government is not authorized to force us to violate our consciences, by making us provide, pay for and/or facilitate “services” that are contrary to our religious beliefs. “American history and tradition, embodied in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Religious Freedom Restoration Act, protect religious entities from such overbearing and oppressive governmental action” (paragraph 1 of lawsuit).
Religious freedom, protected in the U.S. Constitution and other laws and statutes, is rooted in the dignity of every human person. It is inherent in our humanity, a God-given right. It is a cornerstone of basic human rights and is necessary for the flourishing of a just society. We are obliged to defend it for ourselves and for others. We are asking in this lawsuit that this right be respected by our government.
The government has no place defining “religious employer” so narrowly that it only includes houses of worship. This reduces the freedom of religion to the freedom of worship. Religious liberty is about witness and action, as well as worship. The HHS exemption excludes most Catholic hospitals, schools, universities, and social service providers. They are “not religious enough,” according to the U.S. Government Mandate, to qualify for the exemption. Our diocese carries out our mission of service through our diocesan offices, parishes and schools, and through the work of our affiliated ministries. All of these institutions are guided by Catholic beliefs. In our institutions, we employ non-Catholics. We serve non-Catholics. As a matter of faith, we serve everyone. We educate and care for Catholics and non-Catholics. Two of the four criteria for an exemption from the unjust mandate require us to primarily employ and to serve persons who share our religious tenets. As we say in the lawsuit: “in order to safeguard their religious freedoms, religious employers must plead with government bureaucrats for a determination that they are sufficiently ‘religious’.”
A fundamental purpose of the First Amendment is to keep the State out of the internal affairs of the Church. The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment protects people and groups from government interference with the exercise of their religious beliefs. The U.S. Government Mandate with its narrow exemption violates the First Amendment and requires our institutions to submit to “an intrusive governmental examination of our religious missions” (cf. #7 in lawsuit).
In our U.S. Bishop’s statement on Religious Liberty, Our First, Most Cherished Liberty, we state the following: Religious liberty is not only about our ability to go to Mass on Sunday or pray the Rosary at home. It is about whether we can make our contribution to the common good of all Americans. Can we do the good works our faith calls us to do, without having to compromise that very same faith? Without religious liberty properly understood, all Americans suffer, deprived of the essential contribution in education, health care, feeding the hungry, civil rights, and social services that religious Americans make every day, both here at home and overseas.
This lawsuit protesting the U.S. Government Mandate is about defending our freedom to do the good works our faith calls us to do, without having to compromise our beliefs by providing, paying for and/or facilitating things that violate our religious convictions. And it is about protecting our diocese and our institutions from oppressive government intrusion into our religious missions.
I am deeply grateful to all who are joining us in our defense of the right to religious liberty. The unity and solidarity of the faithful of our diocese and the support of many other Christians and believers of other faiths has been incredible. This solidarity and support demonstrates how much we all cherish our religious freedom. We must not allow the weakening of religious liberty in our beloved nation. We sing in our National Anthem that we are “the land of the free and home of the brave.” Let us pray that this will always be so.
Most Reverend Kevin C. Rhoades
Bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend
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