In 1634, a mixture of Catholic and Protestant Christian settlers arrived in southern Maryland from England aboard two ships, the Ark and the Dove. They had come to Maryland at the invitation of a Catholic Lord Baltimore who had been granted the land by the Protestant King Charles I of England. While Catholics and Protestants had been killing each other on a regular basis for a number of years in Europe, Lord Baltimore articulated a vision for a community where people of different faiths could live together peacefully. His vision was soon crafted into the “Toleration Act” in 1649 or “Maryland’s 1649 Act Concerning Religion.” This was the first law in the history in our nation’s history to protect an individual’s right to freedom of conscience.
Like any freedom, religious freedom requires constant vigilance and protection or it will disappear. Maryland’s experience with 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. For Catholics this meant the closing of chapels and a restriction to practicing their faith in their homes. The Catholics and other Christians lived under this coercion until the American Revolution.
By the end of the 18th century our nation’s founders embraced freedom of religion as an essential condition of a free and democratic society. Thus when the Bill of Rights was ratified, religious freedom had the distinction of being the First Amendment. Religious liberty is the first liberty. Within our American heritage, this is our most cherished freedom. If, as Americans, we are not free in our conscience and our practice of religion, then all other freedoms are fragile as well. Scripture is quite clear that our obligations and duties to God come first and if those are impeded or contradicted by the government, then American is flirting with becoming a land where freedoms of all sorts will be rare commodities.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has declared a “Fortnight of Freedom” from June 21 through July 4. For Catholic Christians this is to be a time of prayer, further study, teaching, and public action. We are to witness for religious freedom, our first freedom. The Dept. of Human Health and Services (HHS) has mandated that almost all private health plans cover things such as contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs. Catholics and many other Christians (and even non-Christians) clearly see this as contrary to sound moral common sense. No one is asking the government to prohibit contraception or even stop supporting it. It is a matter of whether religious people and institutions may be forced by the government to provide coverage for contraception and sterilization, even when it violates our religious beliefs.
Go to www.usccb.org/conscience today and let your voice be heard. Tell Congress and HHS to stand up for religious liberty and conscience rights. A Fortnight For Freedom.