By Mark Zimmermann
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Maryland's Catholic bishops issued a statement Nov. 9 urging Catholics and all people of good will to safeguard and defend religious freedom in the state regarded as the birthplace of religious liberty in the United States.
"Efforts to restrict the rights of individuals and institutions because of their religious or moral beliefs are on the rise here in Maryland and around the nation. Religious liberty -- a right rooted in our human dignity and protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution -- is being silently and subtly eroded," Maryland's bishops wrote in their statement.
The bishops' statement, "The Most Sacred of All Property: Religious Freedom and the People of Maryland," was signed by the three bishops whose dioceses make up the Maryland Catholic Conference: Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington; Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien, apostolic administrator of the Baltimore Archdiocese; and Bishop W. Francis Malooly of Wilmington, Del. The area covered by Washington and Wilmington includes Maryland counties.
The statement was issued with input from the Maryland Catholic Conference's Religious Liberty Task Force, chaired by John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America, and included experts in legal, theological and historical issues. The statement will be distributed to Maryland's nearly 280 Catholic institutions and to all of Maryland's state and congressional elected officials.
"Religious liberty is the most important civil rights issue of our time. This thoughtful statement by the Maryland Catholic bishops is a reminder of the role it has played in our history, and of the continuing need to cherish and protect it," said Garvey.
Noting that the Maryland colony was founded in 1634 on the principles of religious freedom that were codified in Maryland's 1649 Toleration Act, the bishops wrote, "Religious liberty in this country began with the founding of Maryland. We must honor our state's unique role in the preservation and promotion of this fundamental principle of government."
But the bishops also noted the fragility of religious freedom: "Maryland's experiment in religious toleration ended within a few decades. The colony was placed under royal control and the Church of England became the established religion.
"Discriminatory laws, including the loss of political rights, were enacted against those who refused to conform. Catholic chapels were closed and Catholics were restricted to practicing their faith in their homes. The Catholic community lived under these conditions until the American Revolution."
Later when the framers of the U.S. Constitution adopted the Bill of Rights, they said, "religious freedom was given the distinction of being at the forefront of the First Amendment."
Maryland's bishops pointed out that "Religious freedom is not merely a civil right afforded us by our government, but, more fundamentally, it is a natural right due each person because of his or her human dignity."
They noted how in U.S. history, religious groups and individuals have been at the forefront of efforts to promote the common good -- opposing slavery, working for racial justice, supporting the dignity of workers and promoting opportunities for people with disabilities. Today, the bishops added, faith groups and religious organizations are "the largest providers of private social services, including hospitals and health clinics, schools and universities, shelters and food pantries."
The bishops' statement listed several recent threats to religious freedom, including efforts in Maryland to control the speech of pro-life pregnancy outreach centers, which have been "singled out for regulation three times in the last year" because "they do not provide or refer for abortion." They also cited moves to undermine the conscience rights of U.S. health care workers and facilities who oppose abortion.
Catholic hospitals are under attack for their faith-based practices, they said. "The American Civil Liberties Union has asked the federal government to investigate Catholic hospitals for declining to provide abortion and emergency contraception," because the ACLU alleges "the hospitals are violating federal law by adhering to their religious beliefs."
The bishops pointed out how the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services "is mandating that all private health insurance plans cover surgical sterilization procedures and birth control, including IUD, 'morning-after' pills and abortion-inducing drugs."
The bishops added, "What is missing is any real opt-out for the Catholic Church" and other religious groups that as a matter of faith and conscience oppose those procedures.
In Maryland, legislation to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples was narrowly defeated in 2011, and it is expected to be re-introduced in 2012. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, has vowed to sponsor it. The Catholic governor also is part of a bipartisan effort launched Nov. 7 to strengthen support nationally for same-sex marriage.
The bishops noted that marriage as the union of a man and woman provides "the best possible environment for the children who will become society's next generation." Maryland's bishops warned that same-sex marriage legislation poses "grave harm to religious liberty by providing no protections to individuals and limited protections to institutions to allow them to maintain their sincerely held religious beliefs about marriage."
The bishops encouraged Catholics to defend religious freedom through prayer, education and action and called on "all Marylanders -- including those of our Catholic faith, other faiths, or no faith at all -- to reaffirm the basic, foundational principles upon which our democratic society is built."
"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religious belief," the bishops wrote.
"No one should be subject to coercion because of those beliefs. ... Society as a whole benefits when all citizens in our pluralistic democracy -- including religious citizens and institutions -- remain free to participate in public life and to do so in accordance with their sincerely held beliefs."
- - -
Contributing to this report was Joseph Ryan in Wilmington.
- - -
Editor's Note: The full statement can be found on the website of the Maryland Catholic Conference, www.mdcathcon.org/religiousfreedom.