Just before the Thanksgiving holiday, on Nov. 21, the Mount hosted a panel discussion entitled, “The Future of Religious Liberty: Prospects and Challenges,” taking the evening to reflect on “a precious gift of God” to be thankful for.
This “gift,” according to the Most Reverend William E. Lori, Archbishop of Baltimore, a Mount Board of Trustee member and 1977 Seminary alumnus, “is not something we’ve been given by the government, it’s a gift we’ve been given by God.”
As chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, Lori further described the “gift” as “something that is beautiful and wonderful and something [he is] very, very happy to protect, defend and foster.”
Before introducing the four panelists, Lori addressed the relevance of the topic through both the global and national perspective, noting how Pope Francis has been a champion of religious liberty himself. He said that the pontiff has pointed out the “bloody genocide” in the Middle East, “where people are dying either because they are not Muslim enough, or because they are Christian,” as well as the “polite persecution of the West,” where, especially for those in religious life, Lori said there has been a “kind-of bureaucratic tightening of the noose around our freedom to operate according to our teaching.”
Lori asserted that these “bureaucratic” acts “trail societal attitudes. So as our culture becomes more secular, the value of religious freedom, which is one of our fundamental freedoms, diminishes,” which in turn, makes it “difficult for churches and people of faith and conscience simply to act according to their own deepest beliefs.”
Daniel Hartman, an attorney who has passionately litigated and advised a number of religious liberty cases as an associate at WilmerHale’s D.C. law firm, then took to the podium to provide an overview of the current legal landscape with respect to religious liberty in the United States.
Hartman argued that the future of religious liberty could be considered under threat from two different areas. First, that “the expansion of civil rights to include characteristics like gender identity and sexual orientation has raised tensions that often may conflict with core religious beliefs.” And second, that “the expansion of public programs has inevitably led to increased government involvement in our everyday lives.” This has thus “led to government programs that require individuals or organizations to take steps that violate their religion,” or “that can even be hostile to religious entities.”
Hartman concluded stating that, currently, “America has an uncertain legal landscape with respect to religious liberty, and it will be fascinating to see what direction it takes in the coming months and years.”
Pastor Cheryl Mitchell Gaines, founder and senior pastor of the ReGeneration House of Praise: “The Church in the Field” in southeast Washington D.C., and an attorney herself, then enlivened the audience with a message aimed at inspiring people to proudly defend their beliefs.
Gaines said that, “There are some believers who have already heard from God in dreams and visions about those who have worldly power to oppress, to threaten and even to impede their livelihood, and maybe even to put them in peril of their very lives.” She then asked, however, “Where is the dreamer who is at first afraid of the ones with the power to do evil against him or her, but who is willing to face the fear and do what the Lord would have us to do anyhow.”
“We are not to be afraid. We have to come out of our comfort zones. We have to know what we believe, and believe what we know,” she preached.
Providing insight into what can be anticipated legislatively in the future on the issue of religious liberty was Nathan Diament, the Executive Director of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America’s Advocacy Center.
According to Diament, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 was the last major religious liberty legislation proposed by both parties and passed by Congress. Ever since, legislation proposed has been largely divided among parties. Additionally, some state legislations and national legislation conflict with each other in terms of religious liberty protections.
He proposes that now, “the fundamental question that is hard to anticipate, and hard to predict, is…whether we [as a nation] are going to remain in this balkanized situation…or are we in a place where compromise will occur out of necessity, if not out of desire.”
Finally, Thomas F. Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute, and director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, gave his perspective on the issue, by defining what religious liberty meant to him: That we have the right to believe or not, that we have the right to commune with “others of like-minded spirit,” and to practice religion “in the public life of our country.”
It is these principles that Farr says are in danger today, and he laid blame on both sides of the political spectrum. As far as the Right is concerned, he believes that “American Muslims are discriminated against in our society, and they have a reason to be concerned about the administration that has just been elected, because of its rhetoric.” On the other side, he said “the Left wants to remove traditional Christian morality from our public life.”
Farr continued, “Religion is not just your right and mine, nor is it the right of our religious group only, it is a check on the power of government…If you believe in something greater than the state, then you, by definition, are a check on the power of the state.”
Echoing Gaines’ message, Farr stressed to the audience, “You are citizens of the United States, you have a right and an obligation to exercise, as well as talk about, religious freedom.”
President Timothy Trainor concluded the event thanking the panelists for their remarks and noting how Mount St. Mary’s was a “natural place” to have the discussion.
The university was founded by Father John Dubois, who fled religious persecution in France and arrived in the United States in 1791, the year of the signing of the Bill of Rights, the first amendment including the freedom of religion. The university’s original charter committed the institution to religious toleration and freedom, which remains enshrined in the undergraduate mission statement today, describing the university as “mindful of its role in the Church’s mission to the world and respectful of the religious liberty of all.”
“Religious freedom is very much in the DNA of Mount St. Mary’s University,” Archbishop Lori stated in his opening remarks, “This is part of who we are as the Mount Community.”
A recording of the panel discussion is available at https://livestream.com/msmu/events/6669431.
Photo courtesy of Peyton Courtney.