In the 1965 Dignitatis Humanae, Pope John Paul II has said religious freedom is a "cornerstone" of the structure of human rights," an "irreplaceable factor" in both the individual good and the common good, which consists of a just and peaceful social order. Religious freedom has both a personal dimension -- the freedom of conscience -- and a social dimension - the free exercise of religion."
Summary of the Declaration
The fundamental right to religious liberty
Dignitatis Humanae formalized three basic principles of religious freedom: rejection of the Church’s claim to direct political power, equal rejection of any interference of political powers in Church affairs, and insistence that the government guarantee freedom of religion and worship.
All persons have a right to religious liberty, a right with its foundation in the essential dignity of each human being. All persons must be free to seek the truth without coercion. The highest norm of human life is the divine law and truth, but it can only be sought after in the proper and free manner, with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, and it must be adhered to by personal assent. This freedom from coercion in religious affairs must also be recognized as a right when persons act in community. As such a community, and in fact a society in its own original right, has the right to live its own domestic religious life in freedom, in particular the freedom to choose religious education.
The responsibility of the state
The government is to protect the rights and equality of all citizens as part of its essential role in promoting the public good, and a wrong is done when a government imposes profession or repudiation of any religion. Religious freedom is exercised in society, therefore is subject to certain regulatory norms, again to ensure the common welfare. Freedom and responsibility must balance and religious freedom must have as its aim to promote persons acting with greater responsibility.
Religious freedom and the Christian faith
The declaration has its foundation in the dignity of the person as understood through human reason, having its roots in divine revelation. Therefore Christians are called to an even more conscientious respect for religious freedom. Man’s response to God in faith must be free – no person is to be forced to embrace Christianity. This is a major tenet of the Catholic faith, contained in Scripture and proclaimed by the Fathers. Religious freedom contributes to the environment where such free response is possible God’s own call to serve him binds persons in conscience but is not compulsion. God has regard for the dignity of all human beings as shown in the actions of Christ himself. Jesus did acknowledge the legitimacy of governments, but refused to impose his teachings by force. The Apostles followed His word and example. The Church is therefore following Christ and the Apostles when she recognized the principle of religious freedom, based both on the dignity of human persons and divine revelation. The Church herself does require a full measure of freedom, a sacred freedom, to carry out her mission.
As Pope John Paul II said:
"…it is clear that the issue of human freedom is fundamental. Freedom is properly so called to the extent that it implements the truth regarding good. Only then does it become a good in itself. If freedom ceases to be linked with truth and begins to make truth dependent on freedom, it sets the premises for dangerous moral consequences, which can assume incalculable dimensions. When this happens, the abuse of freedom provokes a reaction which takes the form of one totalitarian system or another. This is another form of the corruption of freedom, the consequences of which we have experienced in the twentieth century and beyond." (Memory and Identity, Wiedenfeld, 2005).
Sources Wikipedia, USCCB, Book Review The Pope’s Vital Preoccupations.
This is why the Freedom of Conscience Act is so important. We must be free to act on our conscience!