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New York Cardinal Timothy M Dolan speaks during a news conference

A sad consequence of polarization over issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and transgenderism is that religious freedom—our first and most cherished liberty—has wrongly come to be seen by many in the United States as a partisan cause. To be sure, threats from the left to people who hold traditional beliefs on those issues are many, real and severe. But the Catholic Church is not a faction of the Republican Party, and Democrats are not the only ones who sometimes view the defense of religious freedom as a pothole instead of a stop sign.

Here in the Archdiocese of New York, the church can claim a special history of service to immigrants. It was here at the turn of the 20th century that St. Frances Cabrini, the patron saint of immigrants, helped our city’s rapidly growing Italian community navigate their new lives. Carrying on her legacy, our Catholic Charities ministries today still care for unaccompanied children and other newcomers who have come here, many fleeing violence, persecution and abject poverty.

We have a moral duty to welcome, clothe, feed and respect newcomers, no matter how they got here. And here in the United States, the government can’t punish us for that belief.

The Catholic belief that immigrants must be met with compassion and care has deep roots in the Bible. It is part of the same life ethic that requires us to protect unborn children. We cannot offer a full witness to the sanctity of life if we fail to respect life in the womb, and the same is true of the human dignity of immigrants and other people in need. These commitments are inseparable.

And yet, now a few elected officials on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures are pushing legislation to stop any aid to, or government partnership with, churches and agencies like our own Catholic Charities, and are waging slanderous attacks against us for assisting newcomers, including refugees and asylum seekers.

Take the Secure the Border Act, which the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed. It would cut off funds that charities use to shelter immigrants and help them through our legal system. This may seem merely cruel rather than a religious freedom issue, until you see the special vitriol that some of the bill’s backers have directed at Catholic agencies engaged in this work.

When we say that the government must respect religious freedom, both parties need to listen. It is not a right to be observed only when it is convenient.

At least one member of the House seems to think the law already makes it a crime to give an undocumented immigrant a hot meal or a place to sleep, and he wrote a bill to deny all federal funds to any charity that does not comply. Criminalizing the exercise of religion, or denying public resources to someone because they exercised their faith—now that would be a square violation of religious freedom.

Thoughtful people can and do criticize our flawed border policies. I sure do. But we people of faith—Jews, Christians, Muslims and others—also realize that we have a moral duty to welcome, clothe, feed and respect newcomers, no matter how they got here. And here in the United States, the government can’t punish us for that belief.

The faithful in other nations who suffer religious persecution far more than we do here—those in Nicaragua, China, Cuba and Nigeria, just to name a few—urge us to show fortitude in our defense of religious freedom, as they depend upon the example of America’s birthright of this liberty to stay strong in their plight.

So when we say that the government must respect religious freedom, both parties need to listen. It is not a right to be observed only when it is convenient and to be run over when it gets in the way. It is foundational and indispensable to our society.

It is an “American issue.”

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