On every Good Friday since I was a young girl, I've prayed the steps from St. Gregory Street to Holy Cross-Immaculata Church atop Mount Adams.
My extended family and I will be among about 10,000 people expected to make the pilgrimage this Friday (April 6). Those who observe the day when Jesus Christ died on the cross usually pause on each of the 96 concrete steps to say a prayer -- though some are so young they have to be carried in the arms of a parent or grandparent.
It's a ritual that has been observed for generations by some families in Cincinnati. The tradition is about 150 years old -- probably dating to 1861, when climbing what were then wooden steps was the most direct way for some German-American Catholics to reach their new house of worship at the summit of Mount Adams.
The church at 30 Guido Street was built of limestone quarried from the hillside that overlooks the Ohio River. The inspiring spot is one of the most scenic in the Second Congressional District, which I represent.
This Friday, most of the pilgrims are expected to be Catholic, but people of all faiths are welcome. Bishop Joseph Binzer will bless the steps at midnight Holy Thursday, at the onset of Good Friday. The church will remain open for 24 hours -- so that visitors can pray the Stations of the Cross or spend time observing the Relic of the True Cross.
While praying the steps is unique to Cincinnati, I believe the practice epitomizes the religious freedom guaranteed to our country's citizens by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The amendment begins: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
All Americans should celebrate the First Amendment -- not just the faithful, but also those who are agnostics or atheists. It forbids government officials from imposing on us a specific religious denomination, and it also allows us the freedom to choose how -- or whether -- we want to worship.
Our nation is blessed because people of various faiths are able to gather in peace to celebrate their own religious holidays -- even when they overlap. For example, this Friday will be the first day of Passover, when Jews commemorate the emancipation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The same day, Hindus will celebrate Hanuman Jayanti, a festival that marks the birth of the Vanara god Hanuman. Also this Friday, Theravada Buddhists will celebrate the New Year.
The greatest strength of our nation is that while we have come together out of many faiths and nationalities, we are one people.
Among our country's founders were so-called nonconformists, who left their homes in Europe to avoid penalties imposed on those who didn't adhere to state-imposed religions. Much has changed since then, but there are still countries whose citizens live under religious dictates. I've seen it myself. As a member of Congress, I've traveled throughout the world to represent the interests of the American people.
Our system of government is the best by far. However, we must remain vigilant to ensure that our religious liberties aren't eroded.
Part of the problem I have with President Obama's health-care initiative is that it would force religious institutions to offer their employees services such as birth control, sterilization procedures, and abortions, which might be contrary to a church's guiding moral precepts.
This weekend, as many Americans observe Easter, Passover, or some other religious holiday, it is appropriate for all of us to reflect on our cherished values -- and on our responsibility to safeguard our First Amendment rights for future generations.