Our Founding Fathers understood that when the state oversteps its boundaries—offending its very charge and offending the rights of the people—we must stand up.
We stand today in a shadow cast by this massive Planned Parenthood facility, which was designed to extinguish innocent human life when it is most vulnerable. We tremble, perhaps with anger, frustration, sadness, or even fear, as religious liberty, granted by God, protected by our Bill of Rights, teeters at the edge of the cliff. We stand here, at the brink, fearful that if our religious freedom goes over that edge, our country—and all that we cherish about it—goes right along with it.
So we stand as Catholics, yes. But we also stand as men and women from every faith background you can imagine. As we join thousands of people of good will, scattered across this nation we love, we recognize that we fight for a core human truth—we should never coerce a people to commit an act that is contrary to their deeply held religious beliefs. The state, if it is to be just, is never to impose its will over and against the inalienable rights of its citizens.
Our Founding Fathers understood that when the state oversteps its boundaries—offending its very charge and offending the rights of the people—we must stand up. We must remind that state, in the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln, that it is a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” We hope that if we stand up in this moment, in this moment of great need, this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom. That is our hope. The stakes are high. The losses have already been great. But we will not sit it out when our nation needs us most, when our fellow citizens need us most.
It was President John F. Kennedy who said, “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish … where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.” Though many would understandably disagree with much of President Kennedy’s approach toward his faith, these words ring loud and true. They echo the true vision of our Founding Fathers for this great nation. We cannot stand idly by as our authentic rights, and those of our neighbors, are transgressed. This deep conviction led to the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
We stand today for nothing less than the free exercise of religion. And we stand as an American people committed to defending our own rights, and the rights of our fellow citizens. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1803, “It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others; or their case may, by change of circumstances, become his own.”
We rally today most immediately because of the attacks on religious freedom brought by the HHS Mandate. But, we also recognize that the mandate is only one example of countless transgressions against freedom of conscience and religious liberty across our country. When marriage was radically redefined in New York State two years ago, Laura Fotusky, a New York State town clerk objected to signing a marriage license for a homosexual couple on the grounds of her faith. Governor Cuomo, in response to her conscientious refusal (and eventually her resignation), stated, “When you enforce the laws of the state, you don’t get to pick and choose which laws … you don’t get to say, ‘I like this law and I’ll enforce this law,’ or ‘I don’t like this law and I won’t enforce this law,’ then you shouldn’t be in that position.”
His hyperbolic statement, aside from revealing defects in his understanding of law, showcases the pervasive will to remove people of faith from participating in the public square. Consider also the recentNew Mexicoappeals court ruling that Elane Photography, run by a Christian couple, was guilty of illegal discrimination based on sexual preference for declining to photograph the “commitment ceremony” of a lesbian couple.
We see the same problem in the medical field, where medical students, nurses, and physicians are increasingly being forced to participate in procedures they find morally abhorrent. You may have heard of the case in New Jersey where twelve nurses sued because they were told they would lose their jobs if they did not assist in abortions. One of these nurses was reportedly told by her boss, “You just have to catch the baby’s head. Don’t worry, it’s already dead.”
As Martha Coakley, attorney general of Massachusetts, recently said, “You can have religious freedom, but you probably shouldn’t work in the emergency room.” Coakley echoes the thoughts of Julie Cantor, professor at UCLA, who wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine, “Qualms about abortion, sterilization and birth control? Do not practice women’s health.” Finally, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) has a standing ethics opinion that every OB/GYN must either refer a woman seeking an abortion to a doctor willing to do it, or if this is not possible, the OB/GYN must do the abortion himself or herself.
For years, we have experienced the erosion of a robust understanding of religious freedom. And if we are honest, we must admit that we have done little to stem the tide. Is it possible that the HHS Mandate will be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back, forcing Americans to wake up and say “enough!”?
It was Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, ACOG, and other pro-abortion groups that brought us this unjust law. The Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) committee that recommended the mandate was stacked with the most committed abortion supporters. Claire Brindis is on the board of directors for NARAL, and is a member of their “1969 Society,” a group of their most steadfast donors. Did you know that three members of the committee that brought us this law are chairwomen of regions in which Planned Parenthood operates? Magda Peck, Carol Weisman, and Paula Johnson (who was also NARAL’s 2011 Champion of Choice) all carry that auspicious title. There was not a single pro-life man or woman on this committee. In fact, at the time, the committee had donated more than $116,000 to the most pro-abortion political candidates in our nation’s history.
It was this group’s recommendation that gave us the law that we face today. Or perhaps, I should say, it is this committee’s recommendation that gave us this unjust law, which is, thus, no law at all.
As the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops recently wrote: “It is a sobering thing to contemplate our government enacting an unjust law. An unjust law cannot be obeyed. In the face of an unjust law, accommodation is not to be sought, especially by resorting to equivocal words and deceptive practices. If we face today the prospect of unjust laws, then Catholics in America, in solidarity with our fellow citizens, must have the courage not to obey them. No American desires this, no Catholic welcomes it. But if it should fall upon us, we must discharge it as a duty of citizenship and an obligation of faith … an unjust law is no law at all. It cannot be obeyed, and, therefore, one does not seek relief from it, but rather its repeal. The Christian Church does not ask for special treatment, simply the rights of religious freedom for all citizens.”
I am reminded of a recent conversation I had with my five-year-old son, Joseph. I was writing an article on the HHS Mandate, and recently discovered the affiliations of the IOM, when he came in to my office and asked what I was doing.
“I’m doing some research, son.”
“What are you researching?” was the quick and unwanted reply.
Scrambling to say the right thing, I recalled that just the week before, my wife had taken our four children to pray before the very Planned Parenthood facility we stand before today. So I said, “Son, you know how there are some mommies who decide to kill the babies in their tummies? Well, our President and our country are trying to make people like your Mommy and Daddy pay for that.”
He recoiled with shock and genuine dismay: “We are never, ever going to do that even if he says because we love babies in their mommies’ tummies … We are never ever going to do that, right Daddy?”
With the tears of a father in my eyes, I told him he was right: “It’s going to be hard, but we will never, ever do that.”
I close with these final thoughts: We have a tendency to think that the enemy of religious liberty is “out there” on Capitol Hill, or in courthouses across the nation. But we must face up to the truth: We, the American people, are slowly losing our sense of religious liberty. We have, too often, stood idly by as the Church’s voice in the public square has been silenced. We have, too often, watched as freedom was eroded from beneath our feet. It is time to stem the tide, to foster and encourage a new appreciation for religious liberty today. It is religious liberty, after all, that is the first liberty protected by the Bill of Rights, and one of the hallmarks of this great American Experiment.
-From a keynote address given at the 2012 Rally for Religious Liberty in Houston, Texas.