Not by accident did the First Amendment begin with religious freedom, protecting it from infringement in two ways: first, by prohibiting an official, governmentally sponsored religion (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion’) and second, by protecting the people in their free exercise of religion (“or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”).
What do these clauses mean? They don’t mean that Americans’ right to religious freedom is a right to believe whatever we want to believe. Even North Koreans have that right, because as a practical matter no one can force someone to believe or not to believe something. The free exercise of religion means the ability to act on those beliefs. To practice our religion in private or in public. To proclaim our religion to others, if we wish. To spend our money in furtherance of our own religion, and not in furtherance of anyone else’s. To promote what we think is moral, and not to promote anything we think is immoral. These are all necessary consequences of the idea of religious freedom.
Now we are implicated in this battle over the HHS mandate concerning contraceptives, abortion-inducing drugs, and sterilization. It could’ve been another flashpoint. Denmark, for example, has just passed a law requiring the official state Lutheran church to solemnize same-sex weddings. In Ireland, the government is seriously proposing to abolish the centuries-old priest-penitent privilege, thus enabling the government to force priests to violate the sacred seal of confession, something that has been well-settled in the common law since the days of Henry II and St. Thomas Becket. In Nigeria, in what seems like a weekly ritual, Christians are being killed for attending church.
How fortunate we Americans are that we are not encountering any of these obstacles to living in accord with our consciences. Still, the threat to our religious freedom is real. When our government tells us we must pay for acts we believe and know to be immoral for everybody, our situation is comparable to what’s happening in these other places, even if it isn’t precisely similar. So what are we called upon to do?
Of course, we want to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. But we must also render to God the things that are God’s. Conscience, as the voice of God within, is distinctly a resident of Our Father’s house. When the government tries to force conscience to bow to Caesar, we have no choice but to obey God rather than man.
When the authorities in Jerusalem ordered Sts. Peter and John to stop preaching about Jesus, they replied, “Whether it is right in the sight of God for us to obey you rather than God, you be the judges. It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20).
Note the context and the details. Peter and John didn’t say the authorities were illegitimate. They didn’t tell the authorities what they must believe. They even invite their listeners to judge for themselves according to their own consciences. But they stand their ground on one point: that they must do the will of God, no matter what anyone else—government included—says.
It’s a bit of a Paul Revere moment. Only this time it’s not the British that are coming. It’s Big Brother. Or, if you prefer, think of Rosa Parks. We can go along and sit quietly in the back of the bus, or we can stand up for human dignity and the rights of conscience. When it comes to our precious heritage of religious freedom, we must either use it or lose it.
Read the rest here.