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Elder Bob Hall and the members of his Bronx Household of Faith may soon be out on the street. They are fighting a legal battle with the city of New York for their right to rent space and worship in public buildings that are available to everyone else. While the recent HHS mandate has received much attention as a new and unprecedented threat to religious liberty, this case, begun in 1994, shows that freedom of religion has long been in danger.
Recent efforts of the Catholic Church have been focused on defending against an attempt by the Department of Health and Human Services to force religious institutions to facilitate and pay for products contrary to their moral teaching. But this is part of a broader concern: A nationwide trend towards increased threats to religious liberty, and a tendency to limit freedom of religion to just "freedom of worship."
In his apostolic letter on the upcoming Year of Faith, which begins in October, the Holy Father says: "Confessing with the lips indicates in turn that faith implies public testimony and commitment." Our profession of faith is an act both personal and public. This is why the right to exercise our religion through action in the world is so crucial. When the government decides that religious institutions that reach out to the poor and needy are not "religious enough" to merit protection of their religious liberty, we can be forced to either violate our consciences or halt the good services and ministries of the Church, including actions in support of pregnant women and their babies.As the government attempts to restrict our personal civil rights, Catholics and non-Catholics alike should answer the call to stand up for our fundamental freedom of religion. Our challenge is to educate as many people as possible, to make it clear that the denial of religious freedom is devastating to individuals and society alike. Many of the threats to religious freedom don't make headline news. The case of the Bronx Household of Faith is just one of five long-term stories on threats to religious liberty highlighted in a one page Catholic parish bulletin insert (http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/current-threats-to-religious-liberty-bulletin-insert-summer-2012.cfm).
Educating ourselves and others about the growing threats to religious liberty is just the first step. The bishops have urged their fellow Catholics to "an intensification of your prayers and fasting for a new birth of freedom in our beloved country." Catholics everywhere are gathering in prayer and penance in an urgent prayer for religious liberty.
Will we come out of these times with our liberty intact? Given the checkered history of religious liberty in this country, there will be other threats. If we look through the eyes of faith, we can already see the fruits of our efforts. We are joining together in prayer with other faiths and sharing the teaching on married love and the gift of life. We have united as a Church, grown in appreciation for the protection and guidance of the bishops, and been awakened to the growing threats to our religious freedom. We have fine-tuned our explanations to common misconceptions, continue to educate ourselves and others, and are reinforcing our network of resources. Most importantly, we increasingly understand the need for continually turning to Christ in prayer for courage to act faithfully in our daily lives. Continual conversion towards Christ will ensure that we are always ready to answer the call to bring about a new birth of freedom.
Mary McClusky is Special Projects Coordinator at the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. To learn more about the bishops' pro-life activities, go to www.usccb.org/prolife.
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