STEUBENVILLE, OH—“In its fullest and most robust sense, religion is the human person’s being in right relation to the divine, the more than merely human source or sources, if there be such, of meaning and value,” said Dr. Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, at the Truth, Conscience, and Religious Freedom Conference at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
George served as the keynote speaker for the April 4-5 conference, which featured renowned Catholic scholars who examined the state of religious freedom through the lens of the United States’ founding, history, and constitutional principles.
George explained in his lecture, “The Nature and Basis of Religious Freedom,” that in the ideal of perfect religion, people understand the body of truths about spiritual things, and fully order their lives so that they may share in the community of faith that is fully in line with these truths.
“The existential raising of religious questions, the honest identification of answers, and the fulfilling of what one sincerely believes to be one’s duties in light of those answers are all parts of the human good of religion, a good whose pursuit is an indispensable feature of the comprehensive flourishing of a human being,” George said.
George explained that this logic proves that man is intrinsically and by nature a religious being. The flourishing of man’s spiritual life is integral to his comprehensive well-being and fulfillment. This demands that man receives the liberty to pursue his own religious quest, and order his life to the religious truth he finds.
George cited the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which poses a legal U.S. test questioning whether a law, such as the HHS mandate, can violate religious freedom. The test holds that to justify a law that bears negatively on religious freedom, the law must be supported by a compelling state interest and represent the least restrictive or intrusive means of protecting or serving that interest.
“If the Supreme Court applies that test honestly, there is no way the government can win,” George said, regarding the HHS mandate in the cases of Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters of the Poor.
Additional conference speakers included: Randy Lee, Widener University Law School (Harrisburg); Gerard V. Bradley, Notre Dame Law School; Dr. Kevin Schmiesing, Acton Institute; and William Saunders, Esq., human rights lawyer, Washington, D.C.
In his talk “Thomas More, Dorothy Day, and Janis Joplin, and the Search for Religious Pluralism in America,” Lee traced the role that freedom played in the lives of these three well-known figures. Leaving behind a life of radical secularism, Dorothy Day found freedom hidden in the tabernacle. St. Thomas More loved the life he led, but let it all go when he refused to condone King Henry VIII’s divorce.
“Thomas More reminds us that integrity isn’t integrity until it’s bought at a price,” Lee said.
Lee emphasized that freedom allows people to do the unthinkable, an opportunity that blues/rock singer Janis Joplin unsuccessfully tried to grasp. Lee said that when Christian singer Larry Norman toured with Joplin, she would sit concealed behind the curtain, listening to the message of God’s love. However, she was unable to relinquish her doubts over her appearance, her talent, and her worth, and these doubts eventually took her life.
“Sometimes the curtain between us and God just seems a lot bigger than it really is,” Lee said. “Sometimes we need a Savior to set us free.”
The conference also included a panel discussion, “The Frontline in the Struggle for Religious Liberty in the U.S. Today,” that featured Father Sean O. Sheridan, TOR, president of Franciscan University; Dr. Kurt Martens, The Catholic University of America and a
consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; Jayd Henricks,
director of the Congressional Liaison Office of the
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; Dr. Anne Hendershott, sociology professor, Franciscan University; and was moderated by Dr. Daniel R. Kempton, Franciscan University
vice president for Academic Affairs.
Father Sheridan addressed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, particularly the HHS mandate, which requires Catholic institutions to provide insurance coverage that includes abortion-inducing drugs, contraception, and sterilization procedures.
He said that failure to comply with the HHS mandate for the University’s 450 employees would cost Franciscan University nearly $16,450,000 in yearly penalty fines. Failure to provide healthcare at all would cost the University $900,000 annually.
In 2012, Franciscan University filed a complaint against the HHS mandate, as did many other Catholic universities. Franciscan University’s case was dismissed in March of 2013. Currently, a grandfather clause is allowing the University to maintain its current healthcare plan, Father Sheridan said. He strongly emphasized that Franciscan University will never comply with the HHS mandate.
“We are basically in a holding pattern until we have to act and are faced with the decision of whether or not to comply—which we are not going to do—or face these fines, the penalties, that are inherent in the mandate provisions itself,” Father Sheridan said.
The conference was co-sponsored by the Franciscan University Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life and the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.
“Truth, Conscience, and Religious Freedom” was the Veritas Center’s first annual conference. To receive information about next year’s conference, contact Veritas Conference director Dr. Anne Hendershott, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Listen to short excerpts from these talks:
Dr. Robert George speaks about the importance of asking questions to arrive at truths, Randy Lee discusses religious freedom as a gift from Christ, and Dr. Kevin Schmiesing addresses Catholics in politics.