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Freedom of religion


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Freedom of religion is being attacked under the guise of preventing discrimination. To be discriminating used to be a good thing. To discriminate means to recognize a distinction. A discriminating person was one who had or showed good judgment or taste -- a person who was able to distinguish between, and therefore preferred, things of greater intrinsic value over things of lesser or no value. Surely, it is a trait to which we should all aspire.

The meaning has changed. Today, "discrimination" means the denial of rights or benefits to a person based on characteristics over which the person has no control, such as race or sex. This kind of unjust discrimination certainly exists, and given the history of such unjust discrimination against Blacks and women, laws forbidding unjust discrimination have been adopted. Since freedom of religion is a fundamental human right, discrimination against persons based on their religion or lack of religion is also unjust and is prohibited. It is important to note that the "free exercise" of religion is the first right protected in the U.S. Bill of Rights.

The exercise of religion involves among other things distinguishing between good and evil, right and wrong, truth and lies. This positive discrimination is an essential aspect of religious freedom. The action of choosing who can become a teacher in a Catholic institution, adopt or foster a child surrendered to the Church's care, or who can become a priest involves a judgment. The Church has a duty to choose those who fully and without reservations support her teachings. In doing so the Church necessarily and justly discriminates against those who reject her teachings. The Church should not be denied the right to act with prudence in these matters or punished for doing so.

Tragically, the denial of freedom of religion has become ubiquitous. Almost every day there is a new report of an individual or institution facing unjust discrimination because of beliefs about life, family, marriage, or sexuality. Recently a Catholic agency that had been universally praised for its work helping victims of human trafficking was denied federal funding it had been granted in previous years because it refused to offer abortions.

The Catholic Church has carefully studied ethical issues and made judgments as to those procedures and medications it considers licit and those which are not. Catholic institutions and Catholic individuals should not be forced to provide or pay for through insurance those things whose use is contrary to Church teachings.

It is true that Catholic teaching firmly proclaimed and carried out can make those who live contrary to these teachings feel bad, but this is the inevitable outcome of freedom of religion and freedom of speech. No one likes being told he is wrong or can't have what he wants, but no one has a right not to have his feelings hurt. No one has an inalienable right to feel good about himself. No one has a right not to be offended. No one has a right to force others to approve of his behavior, choices, or beliefs. To grant such rights would effectively deny true freedom of speech, as well as freedom of religion.

Those who disagree with the Catholic Church routinely insult, calumniate, and blaspheme her. We must bear these attacks with equanimity, but we do not have to accept the denial of our right to live our faith -- not only within the walls of church buildings, but in every aspect of our lives and every one of our apostolic activities, and to raise our children to do the same. Jesus warned us that the gospel would not be universally accepted. In Luke 12: 51, he said, "Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth: No, I tell you, but rather division." We must accept that when we proclaim the good news without compromise, it will meet resistance. And those who reject it may want to silence unwelcome voices.

In recent years attacks on freedom of religion and religious speech have increased both at the state and federal levels. The time has come to seek legal protection. The courts are too slow and their rulings often contradictory. They have ignored the primacy of freedom of religion and speech, and exalted hurt feelings. Catholic bishops and Catholic organizations need to join with those from other faith traditions who recognize this problem and demand that legislation be passed which clearly spells out the rights of religious institutions and people of faith to live and act accordingly without having to face unjust discrimination.

Dale O'Leary is an internationally recognized lecturer and author of "The Gender Agenda: Redefining Equality."

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