There has been a lot of talk about religious freedom lately, especially in the light of the recent HHS decision to force Catholic institutions, hospitals, colleges, etc., to pay for (or have their insurance companies pay for) contraception, sterilizations and abortifacients. The Catholic bishops of the United States called for the recently completed Fortnight for Freedom to pray for religious liberty in our nation. We can have faith that God was listening, and that He has something planned for the Catholic Church in this country, and for other believers who are affected by this government intrusion on fundamental beliefs.
It's important to remember that the right to religious liberty is actually a more fundamental right than the right to life. This seems to have it backwards, since without life there is no religious liberty. From a temporal point of view, this is correct. If someone is killed, he or she does not have the ability to make any choice for or against religion. Yet the human being is not strictly temporal, and therefore, focusing on this view upsets the metaphysical underpinnings of the human person.
So from this metaphysical viewpoint, that is, going deeper into the nature of the human person, we see that his orientation towards the divine is more primary than the natural life that of ITS nature has an end. The spiritual nature of man is directly oriented towards God (or, in freedom, away from Him!), whereas natural human life is indirectly related to Him. Bodily, we come from God and move towards Him via other created realities: we are born from our parents; we can discover Him after gazing upon nature; we audibly hear the Word of God and physically receive he Sacraments; we interact with others in society. Our souls, however, since they are spiritual, have a direct connection to Him, directly created by Him. While on earth, we rely on our bodies to come to the knowledge of the truth that is God, and can know Him from the created things He has made. Yet in our spiritual souls we remain on the metaphysical plane above all other created, visible realities.
From a moral point of view, the right to religious liberty includes the positive right to pursue religious belief, and the negative right not to be forced into any particular belief. There is no occasion under which someone can be legitimately forced to act against his fundamental religious belief or forced to accept what in his conscience he does not accept as true. As a corollary, no one has the right NOT to respond to the inherent drive to seek religious meaning. That is, it is a fundamental duty of the human person to seek religious truth.
As important as the right to life is, life is relative in a few ways. For one, a person may forfeit the right to life by engaging in activity that threatens others. Capital punishment has a place in a society, even if it is frowned upon except under strict circumstances. One may indeed take the life of another in battle during a just war, not to mention the legitimate right to self-defense for individuals. None of these exceptions apply in the application of religious liberty, even if a government may proscribe certain actions by those who would use religious liberty as an excuse for those actions that endanger or harm society. Such would be laws against polygamy or the use of human sacrifice, among others.
Under the current crisis between the Catholic Church (and other religious groups) and the U.S. administration, there is no over-riding public need that would warrant forcing such religious groups to pay for something considered immoral by those groups. The only leg on which the draconian mandate claims to stand is the supposed right to contraception and other sexual health services. But the Catholic Church is not advocating to do away with these things; She is only insisting on her right not to have to pay for them for religious reasons. And such services are readily available from other avenues. That federal taxes pay for them is bad enough, from a Catholic point of view.
The odd thing is, where religious liberty is abused or attacked, the right to life often falls afterwards. We shall see how things pan out in the coming months and years. . .