The Word from Lansing: Religious Freedom—An American Right for All

Man using a forklift to move a pallet of bottled water at Catholic Charities of Shiawassee and Genesee Counties

Across the State of Michigan, Catholic agencies are serving those in need, guided by the tenets of their faith. For example, a faith-based agency may be in the area, connecting children in need with safe and loving homes; a faith-based school is likely nearby offering opportunities for positive growth and developing hearts of service in their students; or perhaps a faith-based health center is in town serving those who cannot afford to pay with the same level of care they provide to any other patient.

While these organizations and their staff exercise their freedom to serve others in faith, federal regulations over the past several years have tried to place restrictions on their public work, especially in the areas of adoption, education, health care, and charitable services. Religious organizations that speak in support of the protection of human life, as well as marriage as the union of one man and one woman, have been accused of bigotry and have faced discrimination in federal contracts. Rather than celebrating the manner by which people and institutions of differing faiths are making positive differences in their communities, federal regulations have hindered their freedom to serve.

Early in May, the president signed a new Executive Order that reaffirms all people have a right “not only to pray and worship according to their consciences, but to practice their faith in their homes, schools, charities, and businesses in private and in the public square,” without discrimination or coercion from the government. Among other aspects, the Executive Order directs the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to “consider issuing amended regulations, consistent with applicable law, to address conscience-based objections” to the HHS contraceptive mandate.

The Executive Order signals a welcome shift in policy from the previous administration. At the same time, conversations must continue to ensure adequate protections are included in any final regulations that are developed and, on a more permanent basis, in legislation at the federal and state level. For years, the U.S. bishops and the Michigan Catholic Conference have advocated for measures that create stronger protections against religious discrimination by governmental entities and provide a right of action for victims in court. The executive action should not be the final outcome but should begin the process of alleviating unnecessary restrictions on people and organizations of faith.

Earlier this year, Michigan Catholic Conference began a statewide television and online advertising effort to highlight the value of Catholic institutions in the public realm, especially in the areas of education, health care, and charitable care. Michigan has approximately 222 Catholic schools serving 52,447 students, twenty-two Catholic hospitals and eleven Catholic health care centers serving almost 6.7 million patients, and eighty-eight social service centers serving close to 480,000 clients (2016 Official Catholic Directory, P.J. Kenedy & Sons). As the advertising demonstrates, the impact of these institutions is large, especially when coupled with the efforts of individual Catholics and the over 630 parishes in the state. The Catholic faith guides the actions of its believers and institutions every day, not just on Sunday.

The freedom to express one’s religion is not just a Catholic right, it is an American right. At a public meeting in 1844, Abraham Lincoln called the guarantee of conscience rights “most sacred and inviolable,” a guarantee that “belongs no less to the Catholic, than to the Protestant.” Today, it is important to speak up so all can freely express their beliefs: people of faith and their spiritual leaders; faith-based agencies and secular organizations; and longtime citizens, immigrants, and refugees.

Pope Francis recently spoke in Egypt about the importance of dialogue between people of different faiths and cultures to create a better future. The Holy Father laid out several tasks in forming an environment where people are truly able to have meaningful conversations, including respecting the rights and basic freedoms of all, especially religious freedoms. As national discussion continues about the freedom to serve, the Catholic Church will call for strong federal protections that allow for dialogue to occur and to protect the conscience rights of faith-based persons and entities.