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Attacks on Religious Freedom Still Exist at Home

Catholic Review Column

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” --First Amendment, United States Constitution.

As we look around the world today and witness the blood being shed by those seeking the very freedoms we enjoy and sometimes take for granted in this great nation of ours, we realize the great blessing it is to call ourselves Americans.

Faithful people throughout the world are being denied the freedom to worship as they choose, with Catholics having to celebrate Mass in secret for fear of persecution or imprisonment and repression of these and other freedoms leading to violent civil unrest. The news accounts of these violent modern-day crusades are a grim reminder that these liberties are treasures that are not attained or preserved without a heavy cost.

While we recognize how fortunate we are to live in a country that not only guarantees us freedom of religion and speech but also the right to defend them, we cannot become complacent by failing to see and defend against the many and constant threats to those freedoms that exist.

Here in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, we have engaged in such a defense in seeking to protect Baltimore’s pro-life pregnancy centers, which were targeted by the City of Baltimore for speech regulation because of their refusal to provide or refer for abortions. With the pro bono support of our lawyers, we sued the City in Federal Court and United States District Court Judge Marvin J. Garbis agreed with our claim that the city was engaging in viewpoint discrimination. The Court upheld the centers’ first amendment rights.

Fortunately, the Maryland General Assembly narrowly defeated legislation this year to redefine marriage. Had the bill passed, however, it would have provided no protections to individuals and limited protections to institutions to allow them to maintain their sincerely held religious beliefs about marriage. Marriage clerks, counselors, and businesses that provide wedding services would have no ability to refuse to recognize marriages that conflict with their religious beliefs. As has happened in jurisdictions that have already legalized same sex marriage, religious institutions would have to choose between violating their religious beliefs or discontinuing employee benefit programs and services such as adoption agencies. While the arguments surrounding redefining marriage invariably center on a question of "rights," the vital importance of the right to religious freedom is often given alarmingly little attention.

These are but a few examples of the many threats to religious freedom that exist today in not only in Maryland and the United States but also other Western democracies. Citing worldwide efforts to marginalize religion in society and to deny people of faith the right to act in accordance with their religious beliefs, Pope Benedict XVI earlier this year noted the example of laws that seek to limit “the right to conscientious objection on the part of health care or legal professionals.”

In light of these challenges and the continued attacks on freedom of religion and freedom of speech, we have created a venue to engage Catholics in the legal community within the Archdiocese in a discussion of the issues. The first annual Lecture for Catholic Legal Professionals will take place on May 10 at Calvert Hall College High School. Entitled, The First Amendment, Freedom of Religion, Our Faith & Our Ministry, John Garvey, JD, President of the Catholic University of America, and David Kinkopf, JD, counsel in the pregnancy center case, Archbishop O’Brien v. Baltimore, will be presenting. For more information or to RSVP, please visit