Traditionally Maryland Day is celebrated on March 25, the day when the first English colonists on board the ships the Ark and the Dove landed at St. Clement’s Island in 1634 and established Maryland.
On Maryland Day, we can reflect on what makes Maryland, the “Free State,” unique. For some, it might be “Maryland My Maryland,” the state song. For baseball fans, the state bird, the Baltimore oriole, is worth cheering for; while seafood lovers might prefer to celebrate the state crustacean, the Maryland blue crab.
But this year, Maryland Day should be a time to reflect on Maryland’s greatest gift to our country – religious freedom. Historians regard Maryland as the birthplace of religious freedom in the United States.
The name of Maryland’s most famous city comes from Lord Baltimore, Cecil Calvert, a Catholic who established the Maryland colony on the principle of religious freedom. When the first settlers landed on St. Clement’s Island on the Feast of the Annunciation in 1634, Jesuit Father Andrew White celebrated the first Catholic Mass in the English-speaking colonies there, a Mass of Thanksgiving in gratitude for the colonists’ new home.
Maryland, unlike the other colonies, did not have an established religion, so the early settlers there, who included not only Catholics, but also Anglicans, Presbyterians, Puritans, Quakers and others, could worship freely and in peace. In 1649, Maryland passed its Act Concerning Religion (also called the “Toleration Act”), the first law in the colonies to protect an individual’s right to freedom of conscience.
Later, when the United States of America was established, the Bill of Rights – the First Amendment to the Constitution – would enshrine the ideal on which the Maryland colony was founded, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
But the Maryland experiment also offers a cautionary tale about the fragility of religious freedom because in 1704 by order of the royal governor, the Catholic chapel in St. Mary’s City, then the colony’s capital, was ordered to be locked, and Catholics were barred from holding public office or voting, and they could only worship in the privacy of their homes.
In 2009, I had the honor and privilege of joining the modern-day sheriff of St. Mary’s County in ceremoniously unlocking and pushing open the door of the reconstructed Brick Chapel in Historic St. Mary’s City, which stands again as a monument to religious freedom, as the original Catholic chapel of 1667 once did.
Conscious of this special heritage, and worried about new threats to religious freedom in our state and in our country, the Catholic bishops of Maryland issued a statement this past fall, “The Most Sacred of All Property: Religious Freedom and the People of Maryland.”
The statement’s title refers to James Madison, regarded as the “father of the Constitution,” who called conscience “the most sacred of all property.”
Undoubtedly you have heard about the nation’s Catholic bishops’ strong opposition to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate requiring employee health insurance plans to provide for sterilizations, abortion-inducing drugs and contraceptives, which would force religious institutions like Catholic hospitals, schools and charitable programs to violate Church teaching.
The bishops have stated clearly that this debate is not about contraception, which is legal and widely available, but it is about religious freedom. The mandate’s narrow exemption only protects the conscience rights of houses of worship and institutions that hire and serve primarily people of their own faith. “We are deeply concerned about this new definition of who we are as people of faith and what constitutes our ministry,” the Administrative Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a March 14 statement, when they also noted their resolve to stand “strongly unified and intensely focused in opposition to the various threats to religious freedom in our day.”
In the United States, and especially in Maryland, religious freedom is part of our heritage as a people. It is our birthright, our inheritance, and we must protect it. The early Maryland colonists experienced the fragility of this right, and we must not be complacent today when our religious freedom is again threatened.
On this Maryland Day, and every day, I urge you to pray for religious freedom, and as people of faith and good citizens, to stand up for religious freedom, our first freedom. As the Maryland bishops noted in their statement last fall, “These are the principles that those first Marylanders brought with them on the Ark and the Dove. These are the principles embraced by our Founding Fathers and by our Church. These are the principles that are indeed the most sacred of all property.”