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Religious liberty in Virginia

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Of all his historic accomplishments, Thomas Jefferson wanted only three inscribed on his tombstone: author of the Declaration of Independence, founder of the University of Virginia and creator of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom. As he wrote to his friend Dr. Benjamin Rush, “I have sworn eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” 

The statute, which was passed by the General Assembly in 1786, declared that men should not be punished for their beliefs. “(No man) shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief.”

Five years later, the Bill of Rights was ratified, including the First Amendment, which codified the freedom of religion for the new nation.

Centuries later, that robust legal protection of religious freedom continues in the commonwealth, said Jeff Caruso, executive director of the Virginia Catholic Conference, the advocacy arm of Virginia’s bishops. Members of the conference and Catholics around the country will celebrate Religious Freedom Week June 22-29.

“We’re fortunate to have strong religious liberty protections on the books — adoption and foster care is a really good example of that,” he said. 

“We’re one of about seven or eight states that have a law that specifically says faith-based adoption and foster care agencies cannot be forced to participate in a placement that violates their beliefs,” such as a placement with a same-sex couple. “We were the second state in the country to have a law like that enacted, and since then several other states followed,” he said.

Additionally, in 2007, Virginia passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which says that the government cannot intrude on a person’s free exercise of religion without a compelling government interest, and must do so in the least restrictive means possible.

Religious liberty is not only freedom of thought and of worship, but the freedom to serve, said Caruso. “What good are beliefs if we can’t put them into practice?” he asked. “(Religious freedom) enables faith-based organizations and (religious) individuals to serve other people, doing all sorts of good in the area of adoption, housing, food services, and care for the elderly.”

According to the 2017 annual diocesan report, the Diocese of Arlington educates more than 16,000 students. Last year, diocesan Catholic Charites served more than 18,000 meals to the hungry. The agency supports refugees, distributes emergency funds and provides medical care to the uninsured. At the parish level, even more is done to help the community’s poor and vulnerable. 

This month, Catholic teens and adult volunteers will patch roofs, build wheelchair ramps and paint walls for needy homeowners south of Fredericksburg. “WorkCamp allows 1,200 Catholics to serve the community in the name of Jesus, all while (staying) within a public school, and using government-funded social service agencies to locate those in the community who have the greatest need,” said Kevin Bohli, executive director of the Youth, Campus, and Young Adult Ministries Office. “When a government views the practice of religion as a human right, it benefits each of its citizens, but also provides a great benefit to the society as a whole.”

Both Caruso and Felicia Pricenor, associate director of the conference, believe recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, including Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, provide reasons for optimism. “The Supreme Court held that governing bodies are ‘not to base laws or regulations on hostility to a religion or a religious viewpoint’ and ‘cannot act in a manner that passes judgment upon or presupposes the illegitimacy of religious beliefs and practices,’ ” said Pricenor. 

Though safeguards are in place, animus toward people of faith still exists. Recently, the Fairfax County School Board reviewed changes to its Family Life Education curriculum that included removing clergy from a list of trusted adults. 

“I take that as a personal insult,” said Bishop Michael F. Burbidge during a recent “Walk Humbly” podcast.  Bishop Burbidge is a member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Religious Liberty Committee, chaired by Louisville Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz. “What a great insult to our clergy who give their lives in service to God’s people, to God’s young people, (helping) them do what is good and right.”

He later said, “At the national, state and local levels of government, the Catholic Church and people of other faith traditions have experienced threats to religious freedom. Our nation was founded on the principles of religious liberty and countless men and women have fought to defend those very principles.

“As citizens and faithful Catholics, we have an obligation to ensure that the rights granted at our nation’s founding are upheld and never taken for granted. I assure all in our Diocese that with God’s help my brother Bishops and I will continue to defend their right to practice their faith, inside the walls of our parishes, as well as in the public square,” he said.

Caruso and Pricenor often see bills in the legislature that, if passed, would have serious repercussions for religious liberty. “(They fall) into two main categories. The first is bills that would impose mandates on health plans in Virginia that include items such as contraception and sterilization, gender transition surgeries and even certain abortions,” said Caruso.

“The other main category is bills that create civil causes of action against faith-based providers because they hold the belief that marriage is a union of one man and one woman,” he said. “These would be bills that would seek to add sexual orientation and gender identity to existing non-discrimination statutes.”

Even if the majority of Americans disagree with tenets of the Catholic faith, that shouldn’t invalidate a Catholic’s right to live out those beliefs, said Caruso. “Some terms we hear in our society today are ‘tolerance’ and ‘respect for differences,’ and that’s what religious liberty is all about,” he said. “If we’re going to be tolerant of one another, we must respect one another’s differences — whether or not we agree with a particular belief. We should be able to allow space for conscience. That’s part of the American tradition.”

At the end of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the legislators acknowledge that future assemblies may curtail or even totally revoke the right of a people to freely practice their religion. But ultimately, they state, freedom of religion is not a right given by man, but by God.

“Yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.”

Learn more

Bishop Burbidge will celebrate Mass for Religious Freedom June 22 at 12:05 p.m. at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington.

To learn more about local threats to religious liberty, sign up for the Virginia Catholic Conference’s email alerts at vacatholic.org.

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018