My Country: The Debate Over Religious and Civil Liberties

03/01/2016 05:28 pm ET Updated Mar 02, 2017

"God grant, that not only the love of liberty, but a thorough knowledge of the rights of man, may pervade all the nations of the Earth, so that a philosopher may set his foot anywhere on its surface, and say, 'This is my Country.'" Benjamin Franklin

The late justice Antonin Scalia certainly left his mark on the highest court in the land. Son to an Italian immigrant and born in Trenton, New Jersey, Scalia made it publicly known he cherished his Catholic faith. Considered an originalist and textualist in terms of interpreting the Constitution, Scalia was front and center during historic debates surrounding religious liberties.

Scalia's deeply religious beliefs put him at odds with what he saw as a "culture war" bent on tearing down societal norms on contraception, abortion and marriage. The culture war is still ongoing, albeit greatly diminished since Scalia arrived at the Supreme Court nearly thirty years ago.

For those that liked Justice Scalia's brash style and unwavering commitment to religious liberty, the impulse would be to nominate someone like him. Thirty years ago such a nomination may have made sense, but much has changed in just a few short decades. When Justice Scalia was appointed to the Supreme Court, nonreligious Americans accounted for about 7 percent of the population. That number now stands at 22.8 percent and rising.

This demographics change, for better or worse, is fundamentally transforming social norms.

Today, contraception is widely available and same-sex marriage is legal across the United States. Yet exemptions based off of religious liberties have been largely respected. Catholic institutions still have the legal right to hire and fire religious ministers who don't adhere to their sexual norms and threats to strip the tax exempt-status from religious institutions that reject same-sex marriage have fallen on deaf ears, with a recent poll showing 76 percent of Americans against such a measure. As for abortions, in 1986 there were an estimated 1.5 million. Today, the numbers of abortions have dropped to less than a million.

Despite all this, support among Catholics for contraception and same-sex marriage has been on the rise, signaling internal disagreements the church must come to terms with before it seeks to effectively evangelize society.

Going forward, Christians committed to religious liberty have two options: Continue fighting the culture war like Scalia did for the last few decades, or work to maintain religious liberties while not fighting, or at least staying neutral, during efforts to expand civil liberties.

Sooner or later, the Supreme Court will take up the issue of LGBT discrimination in the workplace, housing, and elsewhere. Catholics committed to protecting religious liberty should turn to Salt Lake City, where an updated hate crimes bill gained support from the local dioceses, or New York, where the Conference of Catholic Bishops decided not to take a side on Governor Cuomo's effort to ban insurance companies from covering conversion therapy of minors.

Bottom line, Christians don't like being told their faith and customs are backwards or wrong. Not surprisingly, neither do those who don't share Christian values.

As a Catholic, I interpret my evangelizing mission as living through example. I try and live my life with purpose and charity towards all.

In my view, natural rights, given to each of us as individuals at birth, can't be legislated, regulated, or repealed. Like when man first discovered how to create fire, natural rights will find a way to spread to the minds of others.

Natural rights formed the basis of religious liberty in the young American Republic just as much as it constituted the foundation of civil liberties for women, African-Americans and LGBT Americans as the nation matured. This self-evident truth about the universal and timeless power of natural rights is one of the primary reasons I love and cherish my country so much.

If a young woman uses contraception or two men decide to marry each other, Christians must take time to not judge, but rather reflect on how we can bring light and love into their lives. Judging others is easy, hating is easy; learning to love one another despite our differences is the universal struggle of humanity.

That being said, the next justice of the Supreme Court needs to step in and tell both sides of the culture war to take a time out.

As Pope Francis said during his visit to the White House, "American Catholics are committed to building a society which is truly tolerant and inclusive, to safeguarding the rights of individuals and communities, and to rejecting every form of unjust discrimination." In the final analysis, if the common good is to be promoted and protected in the United States, religious and secular America must learn to live among each other without fear of oppression or persecution.