By RENEE WEBB
DENISON – Father Paul Kelly believes that religious freedom isn’t just about worshipping in a church.
“It’s also the freedom to live out the faith in the public arena,” he told pro-life supporters recently.
Given its popularity, when Father Kelly was asked to give a talk at the conference for the Crawford County Right to Life group, he opted to discuss the relationship between the pro-life cause and the issue of religious freedom. His talk was among several presented.
“Every year they ask me to talk on something and this year I wanted to talk on religious freedom because it seems to be a front-burner issue especially in light of the Affordable Care Act and the lawsuits that are pending regarding religious freedom and the Catholic Church,” said the priest, who serves as pastor at St. Rose of Lima in Denison, St. Mary in Dow City, St. Boniface in Charter Oak, St. Mary in Ute and St. Ann in Vail.
He made the observation that most people who are pro-life are also religious people.
“Therefore, however the courts interpret religious freedom, and if it continues to be interpreted more and more narrowly, then it will impact the ability of this group to be able to effectively engage society and get our point across,” Father Kelly said.
He compared the right of free speech and the rights of religious freedom, pointing out that over the years, the right to free speech has been interpreted more broadly, such as burning the U.S. flag is protected under free speech. On the other hand, the right to religious freedom has been defined more narrowly.
“Religious freedom is protected only within the four walls of your church or your home, but if it is expressed in the public arena, there is resistance,” Father Kelly said. “It’s almost as if you can’t bring it in there because of the separation of church and state.”
Oftentimes, he noted, the government extends religious freedom only to the church itself but not to missions of the church that include the wider community through schools, universities and nursing homes.
“Those missions of the church do not receive the same exemptions or privileges of the church itself,” the priest said.
Father Kelly noted that the United States bishops in the past had received government grants for their work to stop human trafficking, but eventually the government took the grants away because new rules said if they were going to accept the grants, then contraceptive and abortion services would have to be recommended to the girls. The bishops could no longer accept the grants.
“There’s an example of a group that because of their religion they didn’t want to espouse certain behaviors and it came square up to conflict with the government at the time,” the priest said.
He stressed the fact that individuals are defining religious freedom, and right now he believes it is being defined by people – politicians and legal professionals – who are not religious.
“My point is that we who are religious people should be doing the redefining,” Father Kelly said. “We need to engage in the debate about what constitutes religious freedom because if we don’t, it will be defined for us by people who are not particularly friendly to religious entities.”
In relation to the pro-life cause, he spoke of the need to be aware of conscience protection statutes for health care workers who refuse to participate in procedures such as abortion or sterilization.
“The day could come in which they are told that you either do abortion in this hospital or you find a new job,” the priest said. “I argue that we don’t want to see an America in which someone has to choose between their job and their faith, especially in the medical profession where these issues really come to the forefront.”
That is why it is important, he emphasized, to ensure that religious liberty and religious freedom is more than just what happens in church. Father Kelly said religious freedom needs to be respected in the workplace, the marketplace and public arena.
In addition to situations related to the pro-life movement, the priest noted religious freedom can tie into other current-day issues. For instance, he cited same-sex marriage. Within the church’s own institutions, can it put beliefs into practice and say if you are in a teaching role you must subscribe to these beliefs and practices if you are going to be an effective teacher or minister in the church?
“Religious freedom can carry over to issues we are dealing with today and how the church can be faithful to her teachings and yet be respectful and engage the public without being forced to reject or be complicit in an activity it doesn’t believe in,” Father Kelly said.
Staying abreast of what is happening in regard to religious freedom and how it is defined is critical, he emphasized.
“My main concern is that religious freedom doesn’t continue to be defined down and privatized,” Father Kelly said. “We would never say that you have the freedom of speech but you have to keep it private.”