The practice of religion is never a private affair. Faith and the practice of faith have real and tangible results for our daily living. The founding fathers of this country did not ignore this fact. No more fundamental a person articulated this than Thomas Jefferson.
When I attended school, every child in the State of Louisiana, in public or private school, was at least informed about the famous letter of Thomas Jefferson to the Ursuline Nuns of New Orleans. The United States had just purchased Louisiana in 1803. These Catholic nuns, who ran the oldest Catholic girls school in the United States, wanted to know about their rights in their new country. Their inquiry was forwarded to James Madison, the Secretary of State, who in turn referred it to President Thomas Jefferson. In a letter dated May 15, 1804, President Thomas Jefferson replied to the Catholic nuns:
“The principles of the constitution and government of the United States are
a sure guarantee to you that it will be preserved to you sacred and inviolate,
and that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to its own
voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority.”
As those concerned over religious freedom, we wish to be very clear. This is not a partisan matter. It is not a Republican or Democratic issue. Neither does it reflect a conservative or liberal position. The concern is far too fundamental to be subjected to partisan debate. I would point out only one manifestation of the erosion of religious liberty in this country—that is, the so-called HHS Mandate.
The essential problem with this Mandate is not a question of contraception or abortion. The heart of the matter and what is of fundamental importance is something that no government in the history of the United States has ever done before. It is an attempt by the Mandate to define what a church is. In addressing who can be exempted from the Mandate, the wording is exactly as follows (cf. Dept. of Health and Human Services 45 CFR Part 147, Federal Register, vol. 77, no 31, Wed., February 15, 2012/Rules and Regulations):
“… a religious employer is one that: (1) Has the inculcation of religious
values as its purpose; (2) primarily employs persons who share its religious
tenets; (3) primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets; and (4)
is a non-profit organization….”
Do our charitable services ask someone’s religion before serving them? Are the staff members of our charitable services, schools, and hospitals all of the same religion? The answer to these questions is invariably “no.” Yet, as defined by this Mandate, a “religious employer… has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose,” “… employs persons who share its religious tenets,” and “… serves persons who share its religious tenets.” As has been succinctly pointed out, not even our Lord and His disciples would qualify.
I think back on Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Catholic nuns. These French nuns had seen their sisters guillotined in the French Revolution because they were considered a threat to the State—why? Because they were judged to be fanatics. They lived a life of poverty, dressed in religious garb, and practiced religion publicly. For the government of Revolutionary France, anyone who took their religion seriously was a danger and hindrance to the State. The nuns wanted to know where they stood as a “religious employer,” to use the words of our Health and Human Services Department. The Catholic nuns in New Orleans had never experienced the American-style of government before. They had only a superficial acquaintanceship, if any at all, with the Bill of Rights. Jefferson, acting on the finest principles of independence that he himself had penned, replied: “… your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to its own voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority.”
Not everyone shares our very strong beliefs on respect for life, with its implications dealing with abortion, artificial contraception, and sterilization. However, if a government mandate can alter the definition of what a “religious employer” is to fit its own ends, then any religion is vulnerable to redefinition to fit any end as defined by the government.
I wish once again to thank all of you for coming this morning. What is at stake is not a Catholic or Protestant issue, not Republican or Democrat, not liberal or conservative. It is a very basic American one, rooted in the First Amendment.
(Remarks made by Bishop Glen John Provost at the Standup for Freedom Rally, held Saturday, June 30, at Sulphur's Heritage Square Pavilion as part of the Fortnight for Freedom)