Posted on 26 September 2012.
Religious liberty is facing such grave threats in the United States that Catholics must take immediate and courageous action to defend fundamental values in the public forum and in the privacy of the voting booth, according to speakers at a Sept. 20 forum.
Almost 500 people assembled at St. John’s University, Jamaica, heard impassioned calls to educate themselves about the erosion of long-guaranteed rights, form their consciences to reflect basic moral issues and agitate with compassion and civility to protect religious freedom.
Speakers at the conference on religious liberty included, from second left, Eric Teetsel, Dr. Robert George, Marjorie Dannenfelser and Alan Sears. (Photo by Ed Wilkinson)
“Our religious liberty is under assault like never before in America, in ways that are chilling, that are alien and unimagined on these shores,” said Alan Sears, president of the Alliance Defending Freedom in Scottsdale, Ariz. “If we fail to stand, if we fail to fight, if we fail to refuse to comply, our God-given liberty … will be but a distant memory.”
The forum, titled “The Manhattan Declaration Crosses the River,” was based on the Manhattan Declaration, a 4,700-word joint statement signed in November, 2009 by more than 140 Christian leaders, many evangelical and Catholic, pledging renewed zeal in defending the unborn, defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman and protecting religious freedom. To date, more than 532,000 people have signed the declaration, including 52 Catholic cardinals and bishops.
Eric Teetsel, executive director of the Manhattan Declaration, said religious freedom was enshrined in the foundational documents of the country and guaranteed by leaders until recently. In urging listeners to sign the Manhattan Declaration, he said, “We will render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but we will not render to Caesar what is God’s.”
Sears said legislative threats to religious liberty and the sanctity of life and marriage are an attempt to place “legal limits on the love of God.” He called the Obama administration’s health plan “a dictatorial mandate, unprecedented in our nation’s history.”
He said policies enforced by myriad czars at all levels of government make people choose “between God and their livelihood, between their education and their faith and between their family’s financial security and their beliefs.”
Sears said the debate about the definition of marriage is “a key to a legal Pandora’s Box,” whose opening will unleash demands for public support, silencing of the opposition and punishment for those who do not comply.
“We’ve already seen many heroics acts of courage by lay men and women, by bishops and religious leaders who have responded to the threats that are of our time,” Sears said.
Sears said that he and the signers of the Manhattan Declaration “will not comply with any edict that … will force us to bless immoral sexual relationships or treat them as marriages,” noting that New York state has redefined God’s creation of family and marriage.
“We must assure our families and neighbors that we will never allow any government to tell us the limits of God’s love,” Sears said.
In a nationwide poll conducted last summer by Alliance Defending Freedom, more than 60 percent of Americans believe that marriage is only between one man and one woman and should not be redefined.Sears said that based on these results, the cause for religious freedom is “still winning.”
William Mumma, president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said the nation’s founders believed in the primacy of conscience but also were pragmatic men who recognized that any government set up in opposition to the religious convictions of its people “fatally loses its moral legitimacy.”
“If the law is not rooted in the moral law, the American people will not reject God, they will reject the law,” he said. “When the law sets out to destroy religion, it enters into a murder-suicide pact. The government may murder religious liberty, but it can’t kill religion.”
Mumma said the action of the current administration, as exemplified by its defense of the HHS mandate, shows “Religion is not the accidental victim of the government pursuing some other interest you might quarrel about. Religion is the target.”
Tipping Point in Life Movement
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, said, “We are at a tipping point in this greatest human and civil rights movement of our day, the pro-life movement.”
She called election day the turning point between expanding or contracting the human community. Dannenfelser said the tradition of pro-life Democrats, such as the late Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey, has been eroded. “You can’t build human rights on the broken rights of other human beings,” she said.
She said President Barack Obama disappointed Catholic supporters who believed in 2008 he would respect and seek common ground among people of different beliefs.
“He (Obama) proceeded to march abortion through every department of the administration and made it clear he would do nothing to undermine reproductive rights,” she said. “He’s gone from seeking common ground to rejecting anything that a civilized human being would endorse.”
Dannenfelser said communities suffer from the loss of people whose lives are aborted. “If an individual does not show up, the community does not flourish. Even one missing person is a tragedy. Four thousand every day is inconceivable, as is the suffering of the mothers” of these unborn children.
She said public opinion can be moved toward a just cause if people make a connection to the victim and move an issue from theory to reality. “The Manhattan Declaration is important because it’s personal. We are now being required to pay for the deaths of unborn children (through the HHS mandate).” Moreover, she noted that the HHS mandate would further pare down the human family by requiring the church and pro-life groups to be complicit in abortion and other immoral acts.
Princeton University professor Dr. Robert P. George, a drafter of the Manhattan Declaration, said that if “religious freedom is a right, it’s a right for every human being. If religious freedom is in jeopardy for any person, it’s in jeopardy for all.”
While he acknowledged there are other key issues in today’s world, he explained that the declaration identifies those that are most pivotal.
If people don’t stand up in defense of “foundational, civilizational values” on issues such as abortion and euthanasia, “what will justify our care for the environment, or the economy or anything else,” he asked.
“We have to get the foundational issues right, on which everything else fundamentally depends,” he said.
He urged attendees to continue educating themselves, take their beliefs to the public sphere and use the power of the vote.
“It seems that there is one political party that wants to mandate controls over how we feel about God and people and all of the beliefs that we were brought up with, and there’s another party that seems to profess supporting that,” said Frank Hohenstein, a parishioner at Holy Trinity, Whitestone, for the last 10 years. “It’s a shame that politics has come to a point where people have to choose whether they want to support religious beliefs or not.”
Hohenstein said he hoped that the audience would walk away from the discussion with a better education in regard to religious freedom and religious liberty.
“I think that it’s time that every Catholic gets involved with the real meanings of what our faith is about and how it should play a role in day-to-day living when it affects so many people,” he said.
Haitian born Marie-Guilleme Elie, a parishioner and catechist at Our Lady of Refuge, Flatbush, said the day helped clarify issues on which she wanted “to be more educated. There are things we don’t understand that we have to tolerate.”
Chief among her concerns is the spiritual and emotional welfare of children being raised by persons in same-sex relationships.
She planned to take what she’d learned and “talk about it further” with her students, parishioners and fellow board members of Brooklyn Congregations United.
Ridgewood resident James Lam planned to spread awareness about the issues to friends and associates via e-mail.
“E-mail is the most powerful tool,” said Lam, a parishioner at St. Matthias. “The secular world uses it to promote garbage. Now we have to stand up and speak.”
“If more people learn about how our religious liberty is being stepped on, they’ll vote their conscience and vote … to keep our religious freedoms,” said Maryann Moran from St. Sebastian, Woodside.
She attended the conference to better understand the issues, especially as the presidential election approaches.
“We can’t continue the way our freedoms are being slowly but surely eroded,” Moran said.
Bishop DiMarzio was the main celebrant of a Mass at St. Thomas More Church at St. John’s University that opened the conference on religious liberty. (Photo by Ed Wilkinson)
In his homily at the opening Mass, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn said, “We believe in divine revelation and recognize that we have an obligation to completely give ourselves over to the plan of God.
“For us to simply pick and choose what is convenient about the message of the church and Christ’s teaching would be inauthentic,” he said.
“Those who hold otherwise are wrong about the teaching of the church and about the development of our understanding of human life. They are wrong objectively. But to judge them is not our task.”
The bishop urged participants to “vote a Catholic and Christian conscience that is well-formed.”
He was a host of the event, sponsored by the diocese, the Becket Fund, Priests for Life and the Knights of Columbus New York Council.
Contributing to this article were Beth Griffin of Catholic News Service, and Marie Elena Giossi and Jim Mancari of The Tablet.