The Word from Lansing: Protecting the Freedom to Serve Should Be a Priority in 2017

Two staff serving food in a homeless shelter kitchen

On January 20, much of the country will be watching as the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court swears in a new president. Mr. Trump and his cabinet will then have the opportunity to work with Congress on a number of issues facing the nation. One issue that can and should be pursued early in the new administration is protecting the first amendment right to religious liberty and the freedom for religious organizations to serve others.

Across the country, people of varying religious beliefs contribute positively to society. Likewise, organizations of every type, including those that are faith-based, have identified and served the many needs of vulnerable and destitute persons. The Catholic Church has long been an integral part of the country and state’s response to pressing societal needs. She has an extensive and renowned history of educating children; feeding the homeless; caring for the sick, elderly, and terminally ill; and welcoming refugees and immigrants to their new homes. These services are at the heart of the Church’s mission to treat every person as Christ would treat them. Many have been helped by the Church’s compassion — whether at the local Catholic Charities agency, the Catholic hospice program, or their Catholic parish’s clothing or food drive.

In recent years, however, secular advocacy groups and even some government entities have fought harder to push, even litigate faith-based organizations out of the public square. The pressure is unfortunate, because for hundreds of years people of faith have made significant contributions to American history and have done so in a manner that is motivated by their religious beliefs, not in spite of them. During his 2015 visit to the United States, Pope Francis pointed to four such individuals — Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton — and the contributions each made “to building and strengthening society.” One of the pope’s passages bears repeating: “It is important that today, as in the past, the voice of faith continue to be heard, for it is a voice of fraternity and love, which tries to bring out the best in each person and in each society.”

Instead of sending the message that faith-based organizations are unwelcome in the public square or that they must abandon their faith in order to continue serving others, the incoming administration should uphold its campaign promises to protect religious liberty. This is achievable by:

As 2017 draws closer, the Catholic Church will continue her efforts to support the freedom to serve others, to protect religious liberty, and to promote a “vibrant and diverse civil society” where people can “truly encounter one another and engage in respectful dialogue” (USCCB Religious Liberty Report, 11/14/16). In the meantime, all people of goodwill can draw on their own faith to serve those in need, recognizing the inherent dignity each person deserves. For the nation to succeed, and to maintain its tradition of being a welcoming nation, the religious liberty rights of all persons should be upheld and respected.