Religious freedom is one of the hallmarks of U.S. society. But this bedrock principle is increasingly being challenged across the nation — both by government officials seeking to infringe on the deepest convictions held by religious groups as well as by those seeking to muzzle the voice of churches and other faith communities in the public square.
The latest example of the former comes from Illinois, where the state has sought to terminate its contracts with Catholic agencies providing foster care and adoption services because of the agencies’ practice of only placing children with married heterosexual couples or single people who are not cohabitating.
State officials said a new law that went into effect July 1 — the Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act — won’t allow Catholic Charities to refer same-sex couples to other agencies, as it did in the past. This interpretation of the law is being challenged, and a judge has issued a temporary injunction that allows Catholic Charities to continue to provide the service pending a final court ruling.
Illinois isn’t the only place where religious freedom is under fire. Earlier this year, a judge ruled against a law passed by the Baltimore City Council that required pro-life pregnancy centers to post signs indicating they didn’t provide abortion or birth control, although such signs weren’t required of organizations like Planned Parenthood regarding what services they didn’t provide. The case continues to move through the courts. A similar law targeting pro-life pregnancy centers in New York City is also moving through the court system.
And it isn’t just Catholic beliefs being targeted. In San Francisco, a Jewish community group is leading the fight against a ballot measure that would ban circumcision, even though it’s a religious rite practiced by most Jews and Muslims.
At issue in all of these cases is whether the government should be able to compel religious institutions and their adherents to abandon deeply held beliefs for a secular purpose. The answer, except in very limited cases, should be no. That’s what the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects against when it declares that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The idea that government shouldn’t interfere with religion, however, doesn’t preclude religious institutions and the government from working together on issues that benefit the common good as long as religious freedom is respected.
And nothing in the Constitution prevents churches and other faith-based groups from speaking on topics being debated in the public square, whether it is voicing views about how the poor should be protected in a state budget agreement or advocating for proposals to preserve the traditional definition of marriage, as the church in Minnesota recently has done.
Budgets and laws have moral implications, and religious communities have every right — no, a responsibility — to speak out and educate their members as well as lawmakers about the potential consequences of legislative proposals, just as any other group is able to do.
Sometimes citizens want to squelch the voice of religious communities because they don’t like the messages being conveyed or don’t think religion should have a role in the public square. Sometimes citizens and government officials want to compel people of faith to act against their convictions and their consciences.
When either happens, everyone loses — people of faith, people of no faith, and everyone who believes in the principles of religious freedom on which this nation was founded.