Christian Life

Government and Free Exercise of Religion

On the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, Sr Lisa Marie writes the following at Ignitum Today:

There Peter was, chained, with two guards on either side of him. More guards were standing watch outside the gate. His crime? He was a part of a religious sect that followed the teachings of a man named Jesus, whom they profess had risen from the dead.

According to the laws of Rome, Peter’s crime was not so much he and the other believers held Jesus as a god – for Rome had many of them; but that the so-called ‘Christians’ would not pay tribute to Caesar as god. Rome saw itself as a mother that knew what was best for her children, including how and what would be considered proper worship.

It is good during these last few days of the Fortnight for Freedom to keep this thought in mind. What does it mean that we have – as the Bill of Rights points out at the top of the list – ‘free exercise of religion’? This says more than just a right to worship freely, but we are free to publicly exercise that which we profess.

Unfortunately, the United States government is trying to redefine that very freedom by stringently determining what groups are considered religious and which are not under the Health and Services (HHS) Mandate. The mandate’s definition of religious organizations is the basis for what organizations can declare exemption from a healthcare provision that employers must include abortificient and contraceptive ‘care’ in their healthcare plans.

The HHS regulation exempts “religious” organizations only if they meet four criteria:

  1. their primary purpose is the inculcation of religious values,
  2. they primarily employ people who share their religious tenets,
  3. they primarily serve people who share their religious tenets, and
  4. they are organized under the section of the Internal Revenue Code used by churches per se.

What this means, groups such as Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s Missionaries of Charities would not be defined as a religious organization, because they – and most Catholic charities – have always provided their services to anyone – regardless of faith or lack of faith – that finds themselves in need. Catholic institutions employ many people of other faiths because of the skills they offer to assist the works of charities; not because they share in the same ‘religious tenets’.

Under such definition, it is true, Mother Teresa and her works of charity are not ‘religious’ at all, and would be forced to provide medicines and procedures (contraceptives and abortion-related procedures) that go against her religious beliefs. Her religious freedom to act according to conscience would indeed be suppressed.

To understand how grossly errant this policy is, let us compare it with an example from history.

In the years following the writing of the Declaration of Independence, Napoleon was conquering Italy. There is a little known story about his ‘governance’ that is well documented in our own religious institute’s history. By decree, Napoleon ordered the closing of all religious institutions in Italy, including those in the city of Verona, the home of our Foundress, Saint Magdalene of Canossa. She was still working out her plans to begin a new religious congregation that, much like Mother Teresa focused on the welfare of the sick and dying, and education of the poor. But of course, she needed a place in which to carry out her works of charity and to house and prepare her followers for this work. Napoleon had made himself a guest of the Canossa palace, and Magdalene understood that she would need approvals from his government in order to obtain the abandoned convent of Saint Joseph for her works.

It is interesting to note, that despite the fact that Magdalene’s works of charity were clearly based on religious principles, Napoleon was able to appreciate them as a benefit for the society. Her request for the acquirement of the convent of Saint Joseph’s was approved for her works of charity, and thus, May 8, 1808 the Canossian Daughters of Charity – Servants of the Poor was born in an abandoned convent of Saint Joseph’s in Verona, Italy.

Napoleon, who obviously had no regard for religious (demonstrated by the decree of 1806, ousting religious from their convents), was able to recognize the good in a young woman’s works of charity, and grant her the approval to open a house to fulfill them. How is it that the United States government cannot see the harm of restricting religious from equally acting for the good of society through their works of charity, according to their good conscience?

This is what we are up against. Solely because we by conscience cannot restrict our services and hiring practices to those who share our own religious tenets, we are not recognized as ‘religious’ organizations.

In these last days of the Fortnight for Freedom, we must pray – and pray hard – that our freedom to exercise faith in the service of the least of our society will be upheld and protected by law. Otherwise, what guarantee will there be from preventing in the future our freedoms from being further reduced to a point where we, like Saints Peter and Paul whom we celebrate today, will have to pay a very high price to follow Christ?

We are on Day Nine of the Fortnight for Freedom. Join us in prayer and reflection on the gift we have in religious freedom.

Check out the USCCB website for opportunities during this Fortnight.

Well worth reading, Archbishop William E. Lori addresses the Religious Liberty Observatory of the Italian Ministry of External Affairs and the City of Rome on Religious Freedom.

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