It is necessary to continue to clarify some of the ideas involved in the current struggle over First Amendment – Religious Liberties – issues. These circumstances seem to change daily and it helps to stay informed.

It further helps to keep in mind: religious liberty is a fundamental right of everyone. This right does not depend on any government’s decision to grant it: it is God-given, and just societies recognize and respect its free exercise. The free exercise of religion extends well beyond the freedom of worship. So it is different from freedom of worship. Our freedom to practice our religion and to live according to our deeply held beliefs is different from simply being able to go to a church for an hour on Sunday. Our religious liberty also forbids government forcing people or groups to violate their most deeply held religious convictions, and from interfering in the internal affairs of religious organizations.

Recent actions by the Administration have attempted to reduce this free exercise to a “privilege” arbitrarily granted by the government as a mere exemption from an all-encompassing, extreme form of secularism. The exemption allowed by the government is too narrowly defined because it does not exempt most non-profit religious employers, the religiously-affiliated insurer, the self-insured employer, the for-profit religious employer, or other private businesses owned and operated by people who rightly object to paying for abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and contraception. Furthermore, because it is instituted only by executive whim, even this unduly narrow exemption can be taken away easily.

In the United States, religious liberty does not depend on the benevolence of who is regulating us. It is our first freedom and respect for it must be broad and inclusive – not narrow and exclusive. Catholics and other people of faith and good will are not second-class citizens. It is not for the government to decide which of our ministries is “religious enough” to warrant religious freedom protection.

Another very important thing to keep in mind: this is not just about contraception, abortion-causing drugs, and sterilization – although all should recognize the injustices involved in making them part of a universal mandated health care program. It is not a woman’s health issue – pro or con “reproductive health” concerns. It is not about Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals. It is about the American people – people of faith. This is first and foremost a matter of religious liberty that concerns allAmericans – indeed, all people everywhere. If the government can, for example, tell Catholics that they cannot be in the insurance business today without violating their religious convictions, where does it end? This violates the constitutional limits on our government, and the basic rights upon which our country was founded.

So, please follow this issue carefully and be attentive to making your opinion known in Washington. Our Wisconsin senators split their votes Thursday as the “Respect for Rights of Conscience Act” was defeated in a 51-48 vote. Stay informed. Above all, keep on praying. We bishops, and so many other people of good will, are counting on your prayers. Thank you so much for all the support you have offered so far. We are moving the stone up the hill…

…and I’ll see you at Sunday Mass.

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