The Not-So-Free Exercise of Religion

Today the Church celebrates the joint Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, the former being the first Pope and head of the original 12 Apostles, and the latter the great missionary and writer known as the “Apostle to the Gentiles”.  And as you sit reading this blog post, gentle reader, should you happen to live in a Western country you very reasonably assume that you are able to celebrate this feast – or not – as you see fit.  You may practice your religion freely if you so choose, and do not anticipate that your local or national government will tell you that you must practice a religion, or what religion you must practice, or how you are to practice it.

So I sincerely hope it will disturb you to learn that yesterday, the Dutch parliament banned the proscribed religious killing of animals, which the Jewish and Islamic faiths hold as an essential part of the day-to-day practice of their respective religions. This ban comes just as efforts are underway in San Francisco to ban infant male circumcision, another practice essential to both of these faiths.  These moves are taking place not in some putrid, corrupt backwater of the world, but rather in 21st century Western Europe and the United States.

As reported in today’s Torygraph, legislation to ban the ritual slaughter of animals, with no exemptions for religious practice, were initially proposed by the Dutch Animal Rights Party.  This measure was subsequently taken up by a majority of Dutch parliamentarians, which lead to its passage yesterday.  The practice, which results in meat products known as “kosher” by Jews and “halal” by Muslims, was deemed cruel by those who supported the law.  However when we get down to brass tacks, the law gained support because, simply put, a majority of Dutch lawmakers view organized religion as an obstacle to the establishment of a secular, relativist society.

In the meantime, over on this side of the pond, those of us in the U.S. are probably aware that in California, there is a movement to ban infant male circumcision in the city of San Francisco.  The ban would not allow for religious exemptions either, thus yet again targeting Jewish and Islamic religious practice.  The leader of the group promoting the ban claims that his efforts are intended only to prevent cruelty to children, and are not aimed at practitioners of any religious faith.  I would suggest that you take a look at some of the cartoons which he illustrates and publishes on the group’s website, and then tell me what the drawings of the “Monster Mohel” in particular bring to mind.

For Christians, in considering the lives of St. Peter and St. Paul, we need to remember that these two great leaders of the early Church were victims of the State. They were killed not by their fellow Jews, out of some Mosaic punishment for preaching blasphemy, but rather by the Romans, a supposedly civilized people who both codified and respected the rule of law when it served their purpose.  That law placed worship of the Roman state, in the form of its divine emperor, above the religious practice or non-practice of any individual resident in territory under Roman rule, and a failure to adhere to that law was a touchstone for charges of anything from uncivil behavior to inciting insurrection.  As we all know this led to protracted conflicts between the Jews and Romans, culminating in the siege of Masada and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.  It also led to centuries of persecution and martyrdom of the Christians – which, ironically, eventually led to the Church becoming more powerful than the Roman Empire itself.

I do not mean to suggest to my Catholic brethren that sometime next week the government will be knocking on your door and confiscating your rosary as a dangerous weapon, or taking the Blessed Sacrament out of the tabernacle for failure to comply with public hygiene laws.  Hysteria on our part serves little purpose other than to lead to more hysteria.  What I do hope, however, is that the reader pays attention to stories such as those linked to above and, particularly when election time rolls around, thinks about the views of the person running for office when it comes to the protection of religious liberty.

It is through the passage of laws like that in Holland, or that being sought in San Francisco, in combination with the passage of time, that legal precedent is established. And the existence of legal precedent, as anyone with a basic understanding of the law knows, is the most persuasive argument one can make to a judge charged with the power to sanction those who are alleged to be deviating from the rule of law. The fact that Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular among all the denominations, is the largest faith in the United States does not insulate us from attack by those who would seek to do us harm through legislative means.  And the irony of ironies is, that we are the ones who put and keep in office those who would do us harm, either intentionally or by their inability to articulate a defense.

Edmund Burke famously said that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” The free exercise of religion is a fundamental right of all Americans, but it is one which appears to have gone rather flabby in certain quarters. That fact should give all Catholics pause, and afford an even greater impetus to defend the religious rights of worship of those of our fellow citizens who practice faiths other than our own.  Otherwise, we may find ourselves faced with a crop of legislators determined to bring about the undoing of our faith, through democratic means.

Detail of “Sts. Peter and Paul” by El Greco (c. 1592)
The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

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