The Word from Lansing: Freedom of Conscience

During this past Thanksgiving, we recalled the journey of the pilgrims, who came from England seeking freedom from religious persecution. America became a place of opportunity for these individuals and families to start over, to create an environment that valued religious diversity and tolerance. Because of their sacrifices and the sacrifices of the nation’s founders, individuals of all faiths have been able to enter into the public realm to exercise their beliefs. Even today, America is seen as an asylum from persecution, especially most recently for Christian refugees from the Middle East.

For those in this country, religious liberty is more than an abstract concept or ideal; it is an unalienable and constitutional right that is lived out daily. Take the local Catholic Charities agency, for example, which exists to serve others based on the message of the Gospel. The agency’s ability to provide services to all people such as counseling, refugee resettlement, poverty assistance, and child placement services, is directly related to the ability to practice their faith in the public square. Our communities are served well by the work of such an agency or religious person, and therefore, it is vital to defend religion’s role in society.

Efforts are underway at the state and national level to strengthen the free exercise of faith. Such protections would be beneficial to members of all religious beliefs and across many different sectors of society, who have at times faced public challenges to their faith. For example, photographers and bakers who support marriage between one man and one woman should be allowed to express their beliefs without fear of discrimination. Organizations who serve those most in need, like the Little Sisters of the Poor, should be allowed to continue their work in a way that is consistent with their moral beliefs, without government intervention. And Americans of all backgrounds, like the Sikh student Iknoor Singh, should be able to serve their country without having to leave their religious practices behind.

Faith has value in the public square. Individuals who believe and are motivated by all sorts of different religious faiths seek to inform community values, make moral decisions, and address those in society who are poorest and most vulnerable. The Catholic Church, for example, calls for each of us to use our experiences serving the poor, protecting the unborn, providing health care and education to those who need it, and welcoming the stranger to improve our society. So it is important that we continue to ask ourselves this question: will we stand up for an America that protects religious freedom? If we do not stand up, we risk losing the best of what we are, and we risk losing other essential freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.

During its Lame Duck session, the Michigan Legislature considered several religious freedom policies that each passed the Michigan House on Thursday, December 4. The first, House Bill 5958, would have created the Michigan Religious Freedom Restoration Act to protect individual religious freedom from governmental interference. The second measure, House Bill 4454, would have prevented school absences due to religious holidays from counting against a student’s attendance record. Finally, House Bills 4927, 4928, and 4991 would have allowed faith-based child placement agencies to continue their services in a manner consistent with their religious or moral tradition. Unfortunately, the measures were not taken up for a vote in the Senate before the end of the Lame Duck session. Michigan Catholic Conference has and will continue to speak up for stronger protections of our First Amendment freedoms and common sense bills like these in the upcoming 2015-2016 legislative session.

Pope Francis has said that “it’s the duty of everyone to defend religious freedom and promote it for all people.” As individuals of faith, we cannot dismiss religious freedom as an abstract value, but must instead view it as a daily practice to be preserved and strengthened.