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Religious freedom: use it or lose it


Do you assume America is a free country? Do you assume religious freedom is guaranteed in America? Most of us learned that in school and have taken it for granted ever since. In other countries people might have to worry about whether and how they can practice their religion. Not here. This is America, after all.

Why do we think this way? It partly has to do with our law.

Not by accident did the First Amendment begin with religious freedom, protecting it from infringement in two ways: 1) by prohibiting an official, governmentally-sponsored religion ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion') and 2) by protecting the people in their free exercise of religion ("or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.").

What does this mean? It doesn't mean that in this country you have just the right to believe whatever you want to believe. Even in North Korea they have that right, because as a practical matter no one can force you to believe or not believe something. The free exercise of religion means the ability to act on those beliefs. To practice your religion in private or in public. To proclaim your religion to others, if you wish. To spend your money in furtherance of your own religion, and not in furtherance of anyone else's. To promote what you think is moral, and to not promote anything you think is immoral. These are all necessary consequences of the idea of religious freedom.

But law without practice is a dead letter. Our faith in our American freedoms also has something to do with our history.

The first English-speaking Catholics to come to these shores, led by Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore, in 1634, practiced religious toleration, remarkable for its day. The general idea then in vogue was to create a community where everyone was on the same page in everything. Catholic countries were supposed to be Catholic. Protestant countries (and colonies) were supposed to be Protestant. Well, Lord Baltimore bucked the trend. And in 1649 the Maryland General Assembly enacted an Act of Religious Toleration, which promised to every self-described Christian that he or she should not "be troubled, molested or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion nor in the free exercise thereof...nor any way compelled to the belief or exercise of any other religion against his or her consent."

A hundred and twenty-five years ago, in 1887, James Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, went to Rome to take possession of his titular church, Santa Maria in Trastevere, the oldest church in Rome dedicated to our Blessed Mother. He gave a famous sermon there celebrating the American tradition of separation of church and state. He said, "For myself, as a citizen of the United States, without closing my eyes to our defects as a nation, I proclaim, with a deep sense of pride and gratitude, and in this great capitol of Christendom, that I belong to a country where the civil government holds over us the aegis of its protection without interfering in the legitimate exercise of our sublime mission as ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

That church in Rome where Cardinal Gibbons spoke contains the mortal remains of Cardinal Campeggio, a Renaissance prelate who had been sent to England to judge, along with Cardinal Wolsey, the annulment proceeding of Henry VIII against his wife Catherine of Aragon. This reminds us, of course, of the martyrs we celebrate this week, Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More, who both gave their lives to protect the freedom of the Church when the King put himself in place of pope and bishops at the head of the Church in England, something which clearly violated the first article of Magna Carta, "that the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished and its liberties unimpaired."

There are lots of moral lessons to be drawn from the story of Henry VIII. But since I'm a lawyer I want to emphasize legal technicalities, and particularly this bit about the Magna Carta. Magna Carta guaranteed the rights of the Catholic Church in England. But the chief executive officer of the country tossed it away because he had the will to do so. He had the power to do so largely because not enough people stood up to him. We remember our sainted martyr John Fisher. He was made a cardinal by the pope, but his "head was off before the hat was on." There were 13 other bishops in England at the time. Do you remember any of their names? Probably not, because when the winds blew their house caved in. We remember Thomas More. But there were many more lawyers and government officials at the time. They heard what the lion wanted, and they gave it to him.

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