Despite its prominence in the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights, "the gift of religious freedom" runs "the risk of being taken for granted, the head of the U.S. bishops' religious liberty committee told members of Arizona's legal profession and state legislators.

"First, we promote and defend religious freedom because we believe truth, not power, undergirds a rightly ordered politics," said Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky. "Second, because our faith convictions or dictates of conscience call us to inspire a culture.

"And finally, because religious freedom gives us the space to serve with integrity of faith and conscience," the archbishop said.

He made the comments in his homily at the Diocese of Phoenix's annual recent Red Mass, celebrated recently at St. Mary's Basilica. The Mass is sponsored by the St. Thomas More Society. Among those attending were judges, lawyers, government attorneys, lawmakers and law students.

Archbishop Kurtz, who chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee for Religious Liberty, said preserving and upholding religious freedom is intertwined with the Catholic faith and the church's stand on the issue. He noted that America's experience contributed heavily to the 1965 deliberations of the Second Vatican Council during which "Dignitatis Humanae," the Declaration on Religious Freedom.

The document said that religious liberty is a right found in the dignity of each person and that no one should be forced to act in a way contrary to his or her own beliefs.

"The human person has dignity because he or she is created in the image of God, and this means in part he or she has the capacity to seek the truth about God," Archbishop Kurtz said. "As Americans, we intuitively understand individuals should be free to seek the truth of life."

He said that "a politics that respects religious freedom is a politics that acknowledges the pre-eminence of the search for truth that is at the heart of what it means to be human."

"In some of our challenges to religious freedom, I think we see that when we lose this respect for the search for truth, our politics degenerates into power-seeking for the purpose of imposing one's will on others,” he continued.

"This Red Mass is meant to stir into flame your calling as real as Andrew's and Simon Peter's," Archbishop Kurtz said in a reference to the Gospel passage in which St. Mark recounts Jesus' calling of his first apostles.

After the Mass, Ron Johnson, who is the executive director of the Arizona Catholic Conference, told The Catholic Sun, newspaper of the Phoenix Diocese: "It's uplifting for us to be encouraged in the faith. It's important for everyone to have the freedom to express their faith. That makes for a better America."

The annual Red Mass is a prayer to the Holy Spirit for wisdom and guidance for the state's public servants. The name derives from the red vestments of the presiding clergy.

Jeff Grant writes for The Catholic Sun, newspaper of the Diocese of Phoenix.