Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
As with all General Elections, each person of has moral choices to make at the ballot box. My letters to you over the last few editions of the Florida Catholic have addressed key issues of the upcoming election; specifically, defending human life, defending traditional marriage and the family, and defending the poor and needy. This last letter is about recent, unrelenting attacks on our religious freedom and how this election will have a lasting impact on our God-given rights to religious liberty.
As lay faithful, it is vitally important that your voices be heard. By voting for policy makers and on amendments, all people can contribute to political solutions and legislative choices which will benefit the common good. This responsibility is so important that the Church teaches the lay faithful â€śnever to relinquish their participation in public life.â€ť
Pope Benedict XVI, in his 2011 World Day of Peace message, called religious freedom the â€śpath to peace.â€ť The Holy Father went on to say that â€śwhenever religious freedom is denied, and attempts are made to hinder people from professing their religion or faith and living accordingly, human dignity is offended, with a resulting threat to justice and peace.”
This great nation of ours was founded upon certain ideas of religious liberty and freedom of conscience, and even adopted the First Amendment to avoid the very thing that the Church is threatened by today: government intrusion into our civil and religious liberties. The First Amendment guarantees that Congress will make no law establishing a religion, but it also says that government may not prohibit â€śthe free exerciseâ€ť of religion either.
It seems as though these constitutional rights were relatively safe from exterior threats, but circumstances have changed, and thus we must be vigilant. Society (politicians included) must remember that religious freedom in this country allows individuals and communities to pursue ultimate truth; a pursuit which speaks to the very purpose of human existence.
As Catholics we must act now by voting for candidates who uphold religious liberty and freedom of conscience; if we do not, the governmentâ€™s intrusion into basic rights and freedoms will go unchecked, and who knows what might be threatened next.
One glaring example of an attack of religious liberty is the Health and Human Services (HHS) Mandate. Under this Mandate, all employers must provide abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization and contraceptives through their health insurance plans, no matter their moral or religious objections. In order to be â€śreligious enoughâ€ť for the Mandateâ€™s exemption, the employer must serve and hire primarily from its own faith group. The Church has never, and will never, serve only the Catholic poor and needy. We will not abdicate our obligation to serve all people, regardless of their religion.
Contrary to public statements or the Administrationâ€™s so-called â€śaccommodation,â€ť our religious freedom is still threatened by a narrow-minded government agenda. Members of the Catholic Church are being treated like second-class citizens with second-class rights. Nobody should be forced to violate their deepest moral or religious convictions. The government is attempting to coerce Catholics and other religious organizations into violating their core beliefs. This is an attack on who we are as Catholics, as well as the faith-imbued manner in which we have always served both Catholics and non-Catholics alike. In a most profound way, the Mandate is â€śidentity theft.â€ť
The government claims that religious liberty exists because of there is a freedom to hold or attend a worship service. Religious liberty in this nation has always involved much more than attending a worship service, it is about freedom to worship and live our faith in a variety of ways without fear of oppression. For Catholics, the Faith informs and gives life to all of these actions. These actions include charitable outreaches, social services, education, and more. Faith is the motivation and inspiration for all of our works.
The HHS Mandate has little to do directly with the morality or immorality of contraception or to do with womenâ€™s rights. Rather it has everything to do withÂ law claiming a fictitious authority of the government to dictate what it is to be religious and what it is not. The law in this case is an overreach and is being used against the common good of a free society.
When the U.S. Constitution was being debated, Thomas Jefferson once noted that human freedoms, such as religious liberty, are gifts from God and they predate any government. Therefore, without religious liberty all other liberties would not be worth anything. Does the government have the right to take away what God has given? No! Through political participation, the lay faithful have the chance to ensure that this point is made loud and clear.
Both in the general election and within the State of Florida, there are opportunities to make bold affirmations in support of religious freedom and against religious discrimination. In Florida, this opportunity is to â€śVote YES on Amendment 8.â€ť
Current Florida law prohibits religious organizations from receiving state funds, even if the funds are used for services such as food pantries, low-income housing for the elderly, or assistance for mothers and their children. This has so far been accommodated to allow faith-based organizations to use state funds to provide the social services which are vital to the community. However, a legal challenge threatens this accommodation. Accordingly, existing funding could be withdrawn if challenged and upheld by the courts.
To deny state funds to an organization specifically because it is faith-based ignores the tremendous good done by religious organizations, jeopardizes those who rely on these essential services, and violates religious freedom. Religion should never be a key â€śqualifierâ€ť for outright discrimination.
Opponents to Amendment 8 claim it would pave the way for full-scale vouchers and the elimination of the public school system. Not so! Passing Amendment 8 would not eliminate the school system or open the door for school vouchers. In fact, the Florida Supreme Court recently declared a school voucher scholarship unconstitutionalâ€”a point unchanged by Amendment 8.Â There is a reason the Amendment was fittingly titled â€śReligious Freedomâ€ť by our state legislature; Amendment 8 is about religious freedom, not school vouchers!
Others fear that with public funding the Church might become beholden to the whims of government. With the greatest amount of respect to this argument, it is one thing for the Church to make the discretionary decision to accept or reject public funding, but it is entirely different for the government to say that religious organizations, in this case the Catholic Church, â€śneed not apply.â€ť This is about the freedom of conscience and people must include a â€śYesâ€ť vote on Amendment 8â€ť
Be heard on Religious Liberty
Religious freedom is not just freedom from government tyrannyâ€”it also freedom to be the men and women that God has called us to be. This means government must respect our beliefs. As Catholics we have the moral obligation to speak out. Use this opportunity and obligation by remembering to support religious liberty and freedom of conscience when voting on Election Day.
The strength of prayer throughout this political process must never be forgotten. As we pray for our country during the election, we must also pray for all of our elected leaders. We pray for them to be open to the grace of Our Lord, guiding for the benefit of all people through wisdom, compassion and justice.
I take this opportunity to assure you of my continued prayers and consideration.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
+ Frank J. Dewane
Bishop of the Diocese of
Venice in Florida