Happy 4th of July! How will you celebrate this year? By attending a parade? A barbeque? By going to the beach and vacationing with family? By flying the flag? We do all of these things on the 4th of July as a way to remember and celebrate our nation’s birth and our liberty. In George Washington’s “Thanksgiving Proclamation” of October 3, 1789, our first president listed many liberties for which he was thankful to God. Among them was “religious liberty.” In that proclamation Washington asked God to promote in our land the practice of “true religion.” As Americans we have always considered our First Amendment rights to be sacred. Religious liberty is not just something we cherish as Americans though. We believe in it as Christians as well. As Catholics this teaching is enshrined in the document from Vatican II called Dignitatis Humanae. Truth be told, most of us do not spend a lot of time thinking about religious liberty. We just take it for granted. We just assume it will always be there. We feel protected by the First Amendment. We pledge allegiance to the flag, say that our country stands for liberty and justice for all, and believe that this will always be the case. We learn about the pilgrims as school children and assume that everyone shares their values. We walk into a church and pray and just assume that it will always be legal for us to do so.
Are we naïve to think this? After all, there are many examples of other countries where religious liberty is not respected. For example, bibles are not permitted in Saudi Arabia. In Great Britain, couples have been denied foster children because they were committed to teaching the children biblical and moral truths. In Poland, a Catholic magazine editor was fined by a court for speaking the truth about when human life begins. In April of this year over two hundred young girls in Nigeria were kidnapped by the terrorist organization Boko Haram because the girls were Christians.
Could America ever go down this same path? Many people consider the recent Supreme Court case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby to be a tremendous victory for religious liberty. But one lesson that any student of American history quickly learns is that Americans have always had to remain vigilant to protect their freedoms. We cannot just take them for granted. How do we do this? As Princeton University professor Robert P. George once said, the best way to protect our freedoms of speech and religion is to exercise them. In other words, by continuing to go to church, to support Catholic schools and hospitals, to speak about our Faith and to pass it on to our children and grandchildren, we protect our religious liberty and ensure that it will be preserved for generations to come.
God has blessed us by allowing us to live in a country where we have always been able to worship freely. We should be able to live our faith and share it with others, freely and openly, publicly, and not to be persecuted for doing so. We are free to practice our faith, not just in the privacy of our own homes or within the walls of our church, but also out in the communities of Hamilton Square and Robbinsville, in our hospitals, schools, marketplaces, and town centers. We should always feel free to do so. What a blessing we have received from God – may religious liberty always be preserved in our nation!
For more information on religious liberty and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops "Fortnight for Freedom", visit the USCCB website.