Brief: Religious Liberty

February 22, 2019

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A Catholic perspective:

Religious liberty is a right which encompasses the freedoms of belief and action: every person should have the ability to seek and act in accord with the truth.[1] The basis of religious liberty can be found in Scripture: Jesus orders his disciples to give Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and give God the things that are God’s.[2] Reflecting on this, we observe that religious liberty emerges from the different purposes of civil and divine law:

  • Divine law’s purpose is to direct both exterior and interior acts to bring human beings to eternal happiness. The core of this law is contained in the Ten Commandments and the words of Christ, both of which tell us what we must do to love God and our neighbor.[3]

  • Civil law’s purpose is to help groups of people live in peace by acting virtuously. Lawgivers must compromise with what is possible as well as recognize the difficulty of judging thoughts and beliefs.[4]

Civil law should maintain religious liberty for two reasons: first, to avoid civil conflicts over religious differences, and second, to allow religious people to freely worship and contribute to the common good.[5] As such, religious liberty offers society both a defensive and affirmative benefit. For example, as the video below explains, each year Catholics provide:

  • primary and secondary education to about 70,000 student in about 250 schools;
  • higher education to about 30,000 students in six Catholic universities;
  • healthcare to more than 5 million babies, children, parents, and elderly through Catholic health systems and residential care centers;
  • legal services, material assistance and counseling to more than 750,000 Texans through Catholic Charities;
  • support to pregnant women and new families at 20 pregnancy resource centers (PRCs) in partnership with the state, as well as through independent PRCs;
  • hospitality, medicine, and material assistance to immigrants and refugees at the state’s primary respite care centers along the border; and
  • daily acts of charity for our fellow Texans at more than 1,300 parishes across the state.

We do all of this because our faith compels us to action. We call these acts works of mercy and they are central to our lives. We serve not because every neighbor is Catholic, but because every neighbor is loved by God. Side-by-side with other Texans of faith, Catholics are essential to preserving the common good. If we are not able to serve in accord with our faith, the most poor and vulnerable in our communities would lose the accompaniment they need, and Catholics would not have the opportunity serve, care for, and minister to the people others in our society marginalize, despise, forget, or ignore.

[1] Dignitatis Humanae (DH) 2 § 1, 1 § 2, 7 § 3; Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) #2106.

[2] Mt. 22:21; DH 11 § 2.

[3] Deut. 6:5, 30:16; Lev. 19:18; Mt. 5:17, 22:34-40; CCC 2053-5.

[4] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I.II Q. 95 Art. 1. Answer; I.II Q. 96 Art. 2. Answer.

[5] Publius The Federalist Papers. Ed. Charles Kesler. New York: New American Library, 2003. 51:321, 54:370, 55:378; John Locke Two Treatises of Government Ed. Peter Laslett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. II.7.87, pages 323-324. Contrast Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I.II Q. 95 Art. 1. Answer and I.II Q. 94 Art. 3. Answer.


Texas law and policy:

The Texas Constitution enshrined the principles of religious liberty into state law. Among other clauses, we find: “No human authority ought, in any case whatever, to control or interfere with the rights of conscience in matters of religion.”[6] In 1999, Texas legislators also passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which states, “a government agency may not substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion” without the government action being:

  1. justified in “furtherance of a compelling governmental interest,” and
  2. the “least restrictive means of furthering that interest.”[7]

The RFRA provides a defense religious people can use in court or an administrative proceeding when their free exercise of religion has been substantially burdened by the state.[8] Still, lawsuits—especially against state agencies—are lengthy and costly; the process is the punishment. To affirmatively protect religious liberty, Texas law also:

  • applies the RFRA to pharmacists,[9]
  • protects public school students’ expression of religious opinions and allows schools to give students a moment to pray each morning,[10]
  • allows defendants, attorneys, and jurors to observe a religious holy day during which courts pause their proceedings,[11]
  • allows religious organizations to decline to celebrate marriages which violate their sincerely held religious beliefs,[12]
  • prohibits governmental entities and contractors from discriminating against faith-based non-profits who provide child welfare services,[13]
  • allows parents to opt out of newborn screening tests and vaccinations,[14]
  • exempts places of religious worship from property taxes,[15] and
  • protects a homeowner’s ability to display a religious item on their home’s entryway.[16]

[6] Texas Constitution, Art. I, § 6. For other relevant clauses, see Art. I, § 5, 7, Art. VII, § 5, Art. VIII, § 2, and the preamble, which invokes the “blessings of Almighty God” for the establishment of Texas.

[7] Id. at Sec. 110.003 (a) – (b). This text closely tracks the federal RFRA.

[8] Id. at 110.004.

[9] Tex. Occupations Code Sec. 551.008.

[10] Tex. Education Code, Chapter 25, Subchapter E, Subchapter Z, and Sec. 082.

[11] Tex. Code of Criminal Procedure, Sec. 29.011-012.

[12] Tex. Family Code, Sec. 2.601-602.

[13] Tex. Human Resources Code, Sec. 45.001, et seq.

[14] Tex. Health and Safety Code, Sec. 33.012; 161.004. Although some insist that they must abide by their conscience and not receive vaccines, it is difficult to find a moral rationale to refuse immunizations against dangerous contagious diseases, especially considering the solemn obligation to provide for the good of one’s children and to protect the common good. See Pontifical Academy for Life, Moral Reflections on Vaccines Prepared from Cells Derived from Aborted Human Foetuses. 7.

[15] Tex. Tax Code, Sec. 11.20.

[16] Tex. Property Code, Sec. 202.018.

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