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Religious liberty and Fortnight for Freedom

By Sister Constance Veit, lsp
 
In college I grew in my Catholic faith and had a strong experience of religious pluralism. I was involved in the Newman Center daily, but I also had many non-Catholic friends and even frequented Hillel House, the Jewish student center.
 
Several of my Jewish friends worked in Hillel’s kosher dining room, and since they couldn’t work on the Sabbath or religious holidays, they got me and some other non-Jewish girls jobs there; we served kosher food and did the dishes on Friday evenings and Jewish holidays.
 
At 19, I didn’t know much about Jewish traditions. My orthodox friends took their religious obligations seriously and faithfully observed the weekly Sabbath, or Shabbat as I learned to call it. I tried my best to respect their deeply held convictions, even when I didn’t understand them, since I didn’t want to offend either my friends or their faith. I secretly admired the courage of the Orthodox Jewish students who unabashedly proclaimed their religious identity through their yarmulkes, their food choices and other observances.
 
Through these experiences, I learned to approach other faith traditions with reserved curiosity and respectful appreciation. As I learned more about Judaism, while at the same time examining Catholicism in depth, I came to understand that even when we are at a loss to explain the nuances of our faith experiences to skeptics and unbelievers, this does not weaken the sincerity or strength of our convictions.
 
Things have changed a lot since my college days. As the Little Sisters have spent the last several years in the limelight due to our Supreme Court case over the HHS contraceptive mandate, we have received valuable support and encouragement from many sources. But we have also been the object of mean-spirited hate mails, uninformed critiques and partisan judgments of our supposed hidden motives. The vitriol directed against us has been both disturbing and disheartening.
 
Remembering the mutual respect I experienced during my college days, I am deeply saddened to see our current culture’s disdain for traditional religious values and its apparent amnesia in relation to the intentions of our Founding Fathers. For me the most jarring moment occurred last year when a major political candidate proclaimed, referring to pro-lifers, “Deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed.”
 
We claim to live in a pluralistic society that defends human dignity and the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Such a society is committed to making room for everyone including those whose convictions run counter to the mainstream but who wish to live peaceably with others and contribute to the common good. This does not mean that every individual will find every job or social situation a perfect fit. Nor does it mean that every employer, organization
 
or service provider will be able to satisfy the desires and aspirations of every person who walks through their doors.
 
In a pluralistic society, religious organizations like the Little Sisters of the Poor will inevitably encounter requests for services that run contrary to our beliefs, but refusing to provide such services does not offend the conscience rights of others. Nor does it constitute discrimination or bigotry. It is, rather, a means of safeguarding our personal integrity and the Catholic identity of our organizations.
 
Washington, D.C. Cardinal Donald Wuerl said it well in Being Catholic Today: Catholic Identity in an Age of Challenge: “There are some things that the Church simply will not do, and it is not discriminatory to say, ‘We do not do that.’ … We must remain true to who we are. We cannot be expected to embrace error and give up our identity, which inspired us to form ministries of teaching, healing and charity in the first place.”
 
As we observe the sixth Fortnight for Freedom (June 21 through July 4), let’s pray that religious liberty will once again be respected as the most cherished of American freedoms. Let’s pray for the freedom to serve in harmony with the truths of our Catholic faith.
 
Finally, let’s pray for the wisdom to know how to contribute to a better understanding of this important issue in a way that respects all people of good will.
 
Sister Constance Veit is director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor.
 

Religious Liberty

By Carrie Handy, respect life coordinator for the Diocese of Burlington
 
“Religious freedom is not only that of private thought or worship. It is the liberty to live, both privately and publicly, according to the ethical principles resulting from found truth.”
     --Pope Francis, Conference on International Religious Freedom and the Global Clash of Values, June 2014
 

Imagine being a high-ranking public official with the respect of your peers, renown throughout the nation; your esteemed career has made you a trusted adviser to your country’s leaders.
 
And then, imagine having these very people force you to choose between your principles and your alliances, at the cost of your life.
 
Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England under King Henry VIII, faced just such a choice and was beheaded for holding to his principles.
 
Fortunately, no one in this country today is at risk of execution for refusing to obey laws they consider immoral. Our Founding Fathers saw fit to protect religious freedom as a fundamental right—not only the right to practice religion according to one’s conscience but also to be protected from coercion into acting against conscience.
 
Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean conscience protections are without threats. Beliefs about the sanctity of life and the meaning of human sexuality are particularly vulnerable, as Catholic principles about these topics, once considered mainstream in American society, gradually are being marginalized.
 
Abortion on demand, same sex marriage and legal assisted suicide are the most prominent examples of this here in Vermont. But it’s no longer just about moral objections to these practices; in some instances, individuals and organizations face the possibility of having to choose between obeying the law or their consciences.
 
For example:
 
 Doctors in Vermont are legally required to supply patients with information on assisted suicide when asked or refer them to those who will. There is no clean “opt out” for health care providers who morally object to this practice, although a recent court decision clarified that doctors do not have to volunteer this information unless asked. Unfortunately, even referring to another provider can be construed as legitimizing a practice deemed morally wrong.
 
 Last year the Vermont legislature refused to allow a conscience exemption clause in a law mandating employers to fund insurance coverage of contraception (some forms of which may act as abortifacients) and sterilization. As the law stands, Catholic churches and schools in Vermont must fund these practices in their health care plans.
 
 In the neighboring State of New York, a nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City was forced to take part in the abortion of a 22-week- old unborn child in 2009, and saw no resolution of her complaint to the HHS Office of Civil Rights until 2013, despite the existence of a law intended to protect against this type of coercion. Hers is not an isolated case.
 
Nurses have been told by Vanderbilt University and by a state-run medical center in New York that they must assist in abortions against their consciences. The Conscience Protection Act of 2017 was introduced in Congress in January in response to these and similar violations.
 
While we can expect the freedom to act according to conscience in 2017 without facing martyrdom as St. Thomas More did, it will likely take a sustained and united effort to ensure universal protections of conscience and religious liberty. In order to shine a light on the many issues related to religious liberty and conscience protections both here and abroad, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops again this year will sponsor Fortnight for Freedom, a prayer and public education initiative which takes place beginning on June 21—the vigil of the Feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More— and ending on July 4, Independence Day.
 
Learn more.
 
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