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We are preparing to enter into the most sacred days in the Church’s calendar — Holy Week, the week of our salvation.

This is a moment for us to really reflect on the mystery of our redemption — the mystery of God’s love for us. Jesus carried his cross for us and he died for us. To set us free to live a new life — to live for God and for the love of our neighbors and families.

It is interesting that on Wednesday of Holy Week, March 23, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a critical case concerning religious liberty.

In a way it is appropriate. Because the case, Zubik v. Burwell, is all about how we live our faith in Jesus Christ. About three dozen religious institutions are challenging the government’s order that they provide health-care coverage that pays for contraception and sterilization, including forms of birth-control that act as abortifacients.

The most visible group in the case is the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Colorado religious order that provides care and comfort to the sick and dying. But Thomas Aquinas College, a Catholic college here in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, is also a plaintiff in the case.  

This case comes at a crucial moment in our country’s history.

America was one of the first nations to guarantee religious liberty and freedom of conscience in its founding documents. As a result, religion has flourished widely in our society, and for most of our history, there has been good cooperation between the government and religious institutions.

Something has changed in recent years.

As the leaders of our society have grown more secularized, they have also grown less tolerant of believers and religious beliefs and more hostile to religious institutions.

It seems to me and others that in recent years the government has crossed a line. What is happening now cannot be chalked up to simple misunderstandings or intolerance.

There seems to be a deep disdain for certain Christian beliefs — about abortion, birth control and marriage. This hostility seems to be driving the government more and more to try to “punish” those who continue to hold these beliefs and to force them to change.

In the current case, the government is demanding that Catholic institutions make a stark choice. Either engage in practices that they believe are morally wrong — paying for birth control and abortifacients — or pay massive fines and penalties that would drive these institutions out of existence.

Thomas Aquinas College estimates that paying the fines threatened by the government would cost $3 million each year. Estimates for the Little Sisters are even higher than that.

What is so troubling is that no one can argue that there is a “shortage” of affordable birth control in our society. Even if there were a “problem,” the government could easily find other ways to provide free birth control to women.

So we are left wondering — why this fight? Why is the government so extreme in its demands that it is threatening nuns and other religious groups who are trying to serve society. Why would the government force them to spend the past four years in expensive litigation — just to defend their right to perform works of mercy and live out their faith in good conscience?

Labor unions, members of Congress and their staff and many other groups and organizations have all been granted “waivers” and “exemptions” to the mandates of the government’s health care law. Why couldn’t an exemption be offered to religious institutions?

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the government is trying to make an example of these religious institutions.

That is why this Supreme Court case is so important.

Freedom of religion in America has always meant more than just the right to gather for worship or to pray in private. It has always meant that believers have full freedom to live out our faith in public — to express moral viewpoints, to work and run our businesses and institutions in ways that reflect our moral convictions.

All of that is at stake in the case before the Supreme Court. In seeking the total power to tell religious institutions what they can and cannot do in society, the government is threatening the very foundation of our freedoms.

So as we enter Holy Week, let us fast and pray for our country and our leaders and for a new spirit of religious liberty in our times.  

I wish all of you and your families a blessed Holy Week and a joyful Easter.

May our Blessed Mother Mary, who stood by her Son at the foot of the cross, help us to carry our own crosses — and to “die” to ourselves, so that we might live for others and live for love.  

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