Religious freedom is a key value in American life, and a human right which the Church defends vigorously. This liberty means that religious beliefs should be embraced freely, not imposed by law. Yet one cannot legitimately invoke religious freedom in order to trample the rights of others. To invoke religious liberty to destroy another's life is an intolerable abuse. No religion would be allowed to have as part of its worship service a ritual that tortures and kills a child.
Religion does not only protect revealed truths; it also protects fundamental truths about the human person and society that transcend denominational differences. For example, a basic tenet of civilized society is that stealing is wrong. This is also a religious teaching, revealed to Moses in the Commandments and pronounced by our Lord. Yet nobody complains that laws against stealing are an imposition of religious beliefs by the state.
So it is with the right to life. Many defend their "belief" in abortion under the rubric of religious freedom, and seek to relativize the "belief" of pro-life people that abortion is wrong or that life begins at conception. Yet to call for the equal protection of every life that is demonstrably human is not any more an imposition of "belief" than to call for the protection of everyone's possessions from stealing.
In an abortion-related argument, one US Senator once reasoned in words similar to these: "Some people believe life begins at conception, some believe life begins at birth and others believe life begins sometime in between. We should allow people in this country the freedom to hold their own beliefs, without government bodies imposing one or another philosophical or theological position."
I pointed out to the Senator, however, that he had forgotten a group of people, namely, those who believe life begins sometime after birth. Are we not to let them believe as they want, also? Certainly, we should. Yet that does not give them the right to kill the born.
The question here, again, is not whether we will permit beliefs, but rather, whether we will permit actions which destroy fundamental human rights. Laws protecting life actually protect one from the beliefs of those who refuse to recognize them as full members of the human community.
These are truths easily lost amidst the campaign rhetoric of another election season. We as the Church are called to affirm that the separation of Church and state is not the separation of God and state. Without God, the state itself collapses. Anyone who aspires to public office has, above all, the obligation to protect the most fundamental of human rights, the right to life.
Our nation needs the guidance our bishops have given us in their words, "We urge our fellow citizens to see beyond party politics, to analyze campaign rhetoric critically, and to choose their political leaders according to principle, not party affiliation or mere self-interest.." (US Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life, 1998, n. 34).