Religious liberty scholar and advocate Douglas Laycock has offered both praise for and criticism of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ statement on religious freedom, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty.” Speaking of the document’s examples of contemporary threats to religious liberty, Laycock remarks that “it wisely includes the example of state immigration laws that prevent the church from ministering to illegal aliens. This is important both for its own sake and because it shows that serious attacks on religious liberty come from the right as well as the left. The statement says nothing about anti-sharia legislation or widespread opposition to the building of mosques—two more examples of attacks on religious liberty from the right.” This is an entirely fair point, and should be taken to heart by the bishops and by conservatives who are (entirely rightly, in my view) concerned about very grave threats to religious freedom coming from the left and from the Obama administration. Rob Vischer has written insightfully in First Things about the dangers of anti-sharia laws. Jennifer Bryson and I have criticized anti-mosque sentiment in an op-ed piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Catholics have two reasons to speak out in defense of the religious freedom of Muslims, Jews, Protestants, Latter-Day Saints, and other non-Catholics, as well as their own religious freedom. The first (and more important) reason is simply that it is the right thing to do. Faith and reason bear common witness to the profound truth that religious liberty is a right held equally by all. The second reason is that the denial of religious liberty for any one group erodes the foundations of religious liberty for everyone. If you value your own religious freedom, it is prudent to defend the other guy’s religious freedom when it comes under attack. A precedent established by people in, say, Murfreesboro, Tennessee who despise Islam and see it as a pernicious force, may prove very handy to people in, say, San Francisco who have a similar attitude towards Catholicism. (I hope it goes without saying that not everyone in Murfreesboro is hostile towards Islam and not everyone in San Francisco despises Catholicism. By “people” I mean some people, not everyone or even most people in these or other cities.)