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Home The Bishop's Weekly Column Religious Freedom: A Human Right, Not A Gift From The State
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Religious Freedom: A Human Right, Not A Gift From The State Print E-mail

June 22, 2011| The Long Island Catholic Vol. 50, No. 12 | BISHOP WILLIAM MURPHY

As we come toward summer, it is important for me to be able to give thanks for so many gifts that have helped build up the life of the Church here in our diocese. One of the areas that often can escape the attention of many is the good relations the Catholic Church has with our brothers and sisters in the other Christian churches and ecclesial communities that make Long Island so much a better place for everyone. In addition we Catholics should be profoundly grateful to the men and women and the leadership of other faiths who are represented in the Multi Faith Forum of Long Island and who continue an important dialogue with us who believe in Jesus Christ as Savior of the world.

Twice this year past year I have been invited to reflect on these relationships and on the issue of religious freedom, first at the Islamic Center of Long Island and then at the Hampton Synagogue. At both venues I have been gratified to meet with people of religious belief and conviction who are one with us in the defense of the freedom of religion and in a commitment to support one another in defending and protecting the right to freedom of religion in our society and in our communities here on Long Island and across our country.

Believers or non-believers, everyone has a responsibility — indeed a solemn obligation — to respect the right of religious freedom for every person and for every religious institution. This truth has been enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) that has been adopted by almost every country in the world. Regardless of whether or not an individual political state has “adopted” the UDHR, the fact is that, after the basic and fundamental right to life, the most important human right is the right to freedom of religion. This freedom to acknowledge and fulfill one’s responsibility to the Absolute, to God, Who is beyond us and watches over us, is the source of the capacity we all have to have a point of reference, a defense against the incursions of any and every human “power,” whether it be the state, a non-political entity or any other social reality. Why is this so?

The reason is simple but profound and absolutely essential for human life. So long as human beings and institutions recognize, proclaim and worship God and desire to live according to His commands, there is a principle, a point of reference beyond the powers of this world which relativizes the powers of this world and correctly demands of them that they must, for their own legitimacy, protect and defend the right to freedom of religion.

Let me give you an example. Through the years for various reasons, I came to know and meet fairly often with Fidel Castro. We would meet in Havana at the Palacio de la Revolucion and there discuss many issues. Once I argued forcefully, but with respect, that he, who had done many good things for his people, would go down in history as a great figure if he would grant his people all the human rights which were theirs because they are human. My point was that the state does not grant human rights. Therefore they have no power to take them away. The role of the state is to recognize, promote and defend true human rights in order to be a legitimate representative of the people they served. President Castro told me that he and the Constitution of his country did do that “so long as those human rights are exercised in support of the state.”

That is wrong and he was wrong. True human rights, rights as defined in the UDHR, inhere in every person because he/she is human. The state cannot grant human rights. They are ours by virtue of our being human. The state’s only proper role is to protect, defend and promote the rights we all already have because we are human beings.

Castro felt free to decide what and to what extent he would decide what human rights, including the right to religious freedom, persons and institutions can have. Now in our state, there are some who have decided that they, out of whole cloth, want to declare marriage a “right” for homosexual partners. This is Non–Sense. It can be compared to this. I want a glass of water and I ask the waiter to bring me a glass of water. He brings me from the kitchen a glass of milk. I protest I wanted water. He says, “we in the kitchen have the power to decide what you can have and we have decided that water and milk do the same thing. We have decided that water and milk are now the same. So, whenever you ask for either one, you may get the other because we have decided they are the same.”

That is bad enough. But in addition we are being told that the state is open to discussing how they will accommodate persons and institutions of faith so they do not have to worry about the kitchen’s totally illogical and utterly nonsensical re-definition of water into milk and milk into water because they both can do certain similar things. Beyond that, we are even being told that the state is ready to discuss how much religious freedom we milk or water drinkers will be allowed so that the “kitchen power lobby” can have what they want. The notion that the state can determine what are human rights and what are not is wrong in Cuba. It is also wrong in New York.

We all have a right to freedom of religion. That includes freedom of worship but so much more! The church or synagogue or mosque or other group to which I belong has a right that is ours because every human being has this right by the fact of his/her humanity. It does not come from the state but from out sovereign freedom and identity to worship God and to proclaim Him and to live by the rules of our religious faith without interference from the state and without the state granting or denying these rights. They are not subject to negotiation with the powers of the state. They are ours by right because we are human beings.

So long as I have breath in me I will never cease to proclaim and defend the human rights of every person and every institution. This includes the human rights of homosexuals who must be protected by the state and accepted by us all as they are with the dignity that is theirs because they are human. However, true marriage is not a human right that is accessible to everyone because they want the title. Only if they are capable of entering into what marriage actually is: a union of a man and a woman, and the fruit of that union, can and should such a union be recognized by the state. It is in the interest of the state to have stable married life and stable families that produce children and stabilize the foundation of society for the common good. Homosexuals, like heterosexuals, are free to enter into any and all kinds of personal and private agreements as they wish. But these are not marriages.

While we are always willing to discuss with the state what is needed to guarantee the protection needed for the freedom of religion, the state has no right before God and man to try to broker a “compromise” or limit these rights. We all have a right to religious freedom and any political power, any law, that deprives us of that in this country is no different from any law anywhere or in any time that attempts to coerce us into accepting that religious freedom is subject to the vagaries of a state or any other political power.

As TLIC went to press, the New York State Senate had not yet acted on proposed legislation to redefine marriage. Visit the New York State Catholic Conference website,, for further developments.



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