Archive for the ‘Religious Liberty’ Category

Hatred — No. Defiance — Yes!

Saturday, May 16th, 2015

Those were the powerful words spoken by Bishop Gregory John Mansour of the Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn, at a conference held last week on the persecution of Christians in Iraq and Syria by the so-called “Islamic State” (also known as ISIS).  The conference, hosted by the Hudson Institute, was full of grim news about the sufferings of Christians in communities that have their roots in the Apostolic Age — Chaldeans, Armenians, Assyrians, and Syriacs.

Bishop Mansour knows very well what he was speaking about — his flock has its roots in Lebanon, and he has made numerous trips to the region.  Statistics cannot fully tell the story of the misery caused by ISIS, but they can help us understand the scope:

  1. Hundreds of thousands of Christians languish in poorly-supplied refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Kurdish areas of Iraq.  Most will never return to their ancestral homes.
  2. Over 100,000 Christians forced to flee the city of Qaraqosh on a moment’s notice, under threat of death by ISIS if they refused to convert to Islam.
  3. Over 25,000 Christians fled Mosul under the same threat.
  4. Countless Christians have been killed by ISIS fighters, including the 20 Copts who were publicly beheaded in Libya by ISIS because they would not reject their faith.
  5. Over 450,000 Melkite Christians have fled Syria because of its civil war.
  6. Churches and other religious sites have been specifically targeted by ISIS for destruction, thus robbing Christians of their heritage and history.

The evidence is all there before us — we are witnessing genocide in our times.  Christians face extinction in the region that is the birthplace of our faith.

What has been the West’s response?  To our shame, the West is doing virtually nothing to aid the persecuted Christians. Our American government leaders — including our President and Secretary of State — have said and done virtually nothing.

How can this be?  Cardinal Dolan, who also spoke at the conference, gave the very simple answer — they’re silent because we are.  He’s absolutely right.  Aside from strong statements of condemnation by the Holy Father, and letters written by the U.S. Bishops’ Conference to Congress and the President, our Church has not done enough to put this crisis on the political and public radar screen. Catholics and all Christians need to step up and start making noise.

At the conference, the Cardinal outlined our agenda to respond to our brethren in need:

  1. We need a sense of urgency — This is not something that can wait for a change in political administration.  Action is needed now.
  2. We need to give this constant publicity — We can’t be embarrassed to stress this issue over and over again.
  3. We need to identify the problem, “fanatical Islamic Christophobic terrorism” — This is no time for political correctness.  We have to speak the truth.
  4. We need to affirm and support moderate Muslim voices — Without our support, the voices of reason within Islam will continue to be afraid to come forward and oppose the radicals.
  5. We need to do advocacy — We have to press our government for real, effective action.  We also need to contact representatives of the governments where the atrocities are taking place, and demand that they take action.  Laypeople must take the lead here.
  6. We need to engage in interreligious action — Our Jewish friends are eager to help us, because of all people, they know genocide when they see it, and they know that you have to fight back.  We have to enlist an “ecumenism of the martyrs”  among all people of faith, especially our fellow Christians.
  7. We need to act through “the optic of faith” — While the pragmatic responses are crucial, we also have to remember the power of prayer and spiritual solidarity, including prayer for the conversion of heart for the men of ISIS.

There are some steps that people can take right away, like supporting groups like the Catholic Near East Welfare Society, which is providing humanitarian aid to the displaced Christians.  We can also start writing our public officials, from the President and the Secretary of State, as well as our Senators and Congressional representatives.

I’ll give the last words to Bishop Mansour.  He remarked that the main difference between ISIS and us is very simple — “we love, they hate”.  He added that we cannot be passive in the face of evil, but we must stand up and oppose it with all our might.

And he gave us what should be our motto: “Hatred — No.  Defiance — Yes.”

Approaching a Dangerous Threshold

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

Many years ago, the Supreme Court of the United States took up a case involving people who did not wish to conform to a law that they considered to be an imposition on their religious beliefs.  The government, backed by strong public opinion sought to enforce the law, and to compel this religious group to comply.

But they persisted in defending their civil rights, particularly their freedom of religion.  It was a time when it was widely understood that freedom of religion was actually a civil right, essential to well-ordered liberty.   People recalled that the freedom of religion was so important that it was explicitly enshrined in the United States Constitution in two separate places — in the Free Exercise and Establishment clauses of the First Amendment, and in the ban on religious tests for public office.  It was a time when freedom of religion was under attack around the world, with people of some faiths being openly and brutally persecuted.

But it was also a time when unpopular religions still faced legal obstacles in the United States.  Some faiths were considered to be out of step with American values, out of the mainstream of acceptable opinion, and were widely criticized and even derided in the popular media.

The group in that case was the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the law required their children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.  They took the issue all the way to the Supreme Court, in hopes that the highest court of our land would defend their right to live in keeping with their faith, and would grant them an exemption from the law.  The Supreme Court agreed with them, and reversed an earlier decision that gave their religious interests little respect.  In doing so, the Supreme Court, in the words of Justice Jackson, said something very significant about the nature of our government, and the importance of respecting dissent:

[F]reedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.  If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.  (West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 1943)

We are now at a point in American history where this foundational principle is under direct attack, and it is not clear whether it will survive.  The long-standing conflict between the Christian faith and the forces of sexual liberation and radical egalitarianism is approaching a threshold that will be very dangerous to cross.

The battle right now is being conducted over religious freedom restoration statutes (“RFRA’s”) that have been enacted in twenty states (and which are the law by judicial decision in eleven others).  Those laws reflect the values expressed by the Supreme Court in the Jehovah’s Witness case.  RFRA laws recognize the civil rights of religious people to an exemption from certain general laws.  They would only get an exemption if they can prove that the law imposes a substantial burden on their religious beliefs.  However, they would still have to obey the law if the government has a compelling interest in enforcing it and there are no reasonable alternatives.  A RFRA law essentially creates a balancing test that courts would have to apply to a fact-based situation.  It does not grant a  blanket or automatic exemption to religious people.

The real dispute is, of course, whether Christians can be compelled to recognize same-sex “marriages” and to provide direct services to ceremonies that purport to create such unions.  A reasonable argument can be held about this question.  But that’s not what’s happening, and that’s precisely why we are in such a dangerous moment.

There has been an amazing amount of hysterical, ill-informed opposition to these RFRA laws that fail to take into account their true, limited nature.  But what really concerns me is the dismissive attitude that’s being displayed about religious freedom and the freedom to dissent.  People are speaking as if the category of “civil rights” didn’t even include freedom of religion, and that it must always be suppressed in favor of the supposed right to same-sex “marriage”.  One of our major political parties, most of the mainstream media, many of our courts, and a number of large corporations have already crossed the line into official intolerance towards religious liberty.   Public opinion polls show a shrinking number of people (albeit still a majority) who respect the right to dissent based on religion.  Gone are the days when dissent was considered a legitimate form of patriotism.

Basic respect for the right to dissent from official orthodoxy is under threat, and may not survive much longer.  When, as I expect, the Supreme Court invents the imaginary “right” to a same-sex “marriage”, this conflict will grow even more intense, and the danger to dissent based on religious beliefs will be even more acute.

On the other side of this threshold is real persecution, like that shown to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the old days.  People are already being forced to recognize same-sex “marriages”, or face crippling fines and loss of businesses.  Institutions that resist will be punished by loss of public funding, access to public programs, and tax exemptions.  Individuals who dissent will be shunned and excluded from certain professions, and even from public office.

The right to dissent is essential to American liberty.  The Supreme Court saw that in the Jehovah’s Witness case.  Will our nation continue to see that now?

Engagement and Resistance

Saturday, January 17th, 2015

Reflecting on my pessimistic take on the Supreme Court’s decision to make a final ruling on the marriage redefinition cases, I had an interesting email exchange with my friend and colleague Alexis Carra. She wrote to me:

Inevitably, the government/legislature/court will no longer recognize true religious liberty, amongst other things. This is an unfortunate consequence of a metaphysical and anthropological revolution/decline that has swept society; a phenomenon in which people no longer have a proper understand of human nature, reality, and our relationship to God.

1) So in this “post-human” age, how do we go about testifying and defending the Truth in the public sphere, especially when our court system will inevitably be against us? Is it time to change methods? If so, what should our new method(s) be?

(2) Similarly, in this “post-human” age, how do we go about testifying and defending the Truth in the private sphere? How should we engage our children, our friends, and our communities, especially when they are often hostile towards our message?

I replied, in part:

I wish I had answers to your questions. I have believed for many years that the time is rapidly approaching when Catholics may no longer be able to give their consent to the Constitutional morass that our judicial oligarchy has now imposed on us. This is a regime where truth and morality are denied and are instead branded as invidious bigotry, while laws that violate fundamental human rights are foisted upon us and we are compelled to cooperate with them. The Supreme Court’s decision on the marriage case may put us in a position where we can no longer recognize the legitimacy of the current regime.

Alexis’ response gets right to the heart of the matter, and adds some important distinctions:

It’s going to be even harder to live as authentic Catholics within the American system or as you say, “the current regime.” We will be forced to cooperate with evil under duress or become martyrs.

However, I actually do have some hope. I think the distinction must be made between “engaging with the public system” and “utilizing the public system.” I think — for most cases – we will be unable to utilize the system in order to uphold our religious liberties, etc. Yet this does not mean that we completely retreat from the system. Instead, we must continue to engage with the system; we must become the gadfly to the system (thinking of Socrates here). And this is a very important role that cannot be underestimated.

I still think there is something to be said for public engagement. I think the gay marriage debate has been largely a disastrous failure, but the same cannot be said for abortion. I think progress has made been made particularly because many young people rightly perceive abortion as the murdering of innocent life.

Overall, I think we are called to live as counter-cultural witnesses in an active sense; most of us are not called to completely separate ourselves from society.

I think that she is precisely correct. I too am pessimistic but not hopeless. There are many who advocate for disengagement from society, similar to the Amish. I refuse to do so. Engagement is clearly the proper course, but as a form of resistance to the dictatorship of relativism — where we continually proclaim the truth with love, and steadfastly refuse to conform to the lies. My model for this is Vaclav Havel’s The Power of the Powerless.

Nothing can erase the human desire for, and recognition of, the truth. Even under all the lies, the vast majority of people will try to live in truth. We are always called by our faith to be witnesses to the truth, even when that truth may be a “sign of contradiction”.

Pessimism about Marriage and the Supreme Court

Saturday, January 17th, 2015

The Supreme Court has now agreed to decide one of the marriage redefinition cases. The oral argument will be held at the end of April, and a decision will come down at the end of June.

In my opinion, this is not good news. The conventional wisdom is that the Court takes cases in order to reverse lower courts, and the statistics bear that out (in revious terms, they’ve reversed about 75% of the cases they take). So it’s very significant that the Court took the case from the Sixth Circuit — the only Circuit Court to have upheld real marriage.

We also have to bear in mind that in the Windsor case, the majority of the Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, on the theory that it violated Equal Protection because the law was enacted specifically with “animus” towards homosexuals. In the case the Court just accepted, each of the state laws involved (Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee) would be vulnerable to that same argument, since they adopted constitutional amendments specifically to rule out the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples.

So I think there’s every reason to anticipate that the Court will rule the wrong way. It’s clear that there is a solid 4-vote bloc that will vote to recognize same-sex “marriage” (Sotomayor, Kagen, Breyer, and Ginsberg), and a 4-vote bloc that will likely vote against it (Alito, Scalia, Thomas, and probably Roberts). Given Justice Kennedy’s past record on homosexual rights cases — he has always voted in favor of them and has written some terrible majority opinions centered on the issue of alleged “animus” (see the Lawrence, Romer, and Windsor cases) — it seems virtually certain that he will follow his own reasoning in his Windsor majority opinion, and rule that the secret messages, written in invisible ink but that he manages to discern in the Constitution, somehow require the recognition of same-sex “marriage”.

In other words, the Court will likely decide that the Equal Protection Clause requires that we must abandon logic, and say that inherently different things are actually the same.  Welcome to the Humpty-Dumpty world of justice, where words mean whatever the people in power wish them to mean.

I am innately pessimistic about Court rulings, but I just can’t see any path to a good outcome here. Not only will a marriage re-definition ruling flout the will of the people as expressed in the democratic process, it will contradict the fundamental truths about marriage contained in the natural law and in the nature of the human person. It will also increase pressure on religious people to conform, and will test our ability to live in keeping with our faith in an increasingly hostile nation.

 

A Bleak Outlook for Religious Liberty?

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014

For the past few years, disputes over religious liberty has been very prominent parts of the American legal and political agenda. No observer of the state of religion in our nation can fail to be struck by the series of difficult and contentious controversies. The HHS mandate and the redefinition of marriage are just the most recent examples that have brought the conflict into stark view.

This conflict has attracted a great deal of attention from legal and political scholars.  In my view, no book does a better job of explaining its background and likely future course than the recent sobering work by Steven Smith, The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom. Prof. Smith is one of the leading scholars of religious liberty, which might scare people off from this book. But his writing is remarkably accessible to non-experts, and anyone with a basic knowledge of American history would find it a fascinating and compelling read.

The basic thesis of the book is to contrast what Prof. Smith calls the “standard story” of American religious liberty, which is generally accepted and taught in academia, with a “revised story” that he proposes as a better explanation for where we’ve come from and where we’re going.

The “standard story”, in essence:

tells how, under the influence of the Enlightenment, the American founders broke away from the intolerance and dogmatism of centuries of Christendom and courageously set out on a radical new experiment in religious liberty. More specifically, the founders adopted a Constitution that committed the nation to the separation of religion from government and thus to secular governance that would be neutral toward religion.  These commitments were not immediately realized… Even now the achievement is under threat… mainly from religious conservatives…

This basic description of the “standard story” should be familiar to all, since it is reflected in Supreme Court decisions and the general public debate about the role of religion in our society.  It is the story that I learned in law school, and, I imagine, that is taught in every high school and college history and political science class.  It is the story of the alleged “wall of separation” that keeps push religious groups and ideas out of the public square.  It is the reason that our courts and legislatures increasingly find little reason to accommodate or protect unpopular religious beliefs and practices.  Prof. Smith says that the general acceptance of the “standard story” has reached such a point that nobody feels a need to explain or defend it.  Instead, it has become one of those things of which people say, “as we all know…”

According to Prof. Smith, the problem with the “standard story” is that it is actually false in many significant respects.  Instead, he proposes a “revised story” that better explains the history of American religious liberty in key ways:

  • American religious freedom is mostly a retrieval and consolidation of Christian themes (with some pagan principles mixed in), particularly libertas ecclesiae (freedom of the church), and freedom of the “inner church” of conscience.
  • The First Amendment religious clause did nothing radical or dramatically new, but instead re-stated principles that were uncontroversial at the time — a limitation on the jurisdiction of Congress relating to Churches and religion.
  • The first century and a half of our history were a “golden age of American religious freedom”.  It was not a time in which the Republic failed to live up to the ideals of the First Amendment, but instead  those ideals were allowed to grow and work out through the democratic process.  Prof. Smith proposes that this was the time of the “American settlement”, which rested on the separation of church from state (but not a strict exclusion of religion from government) and freedom of conscience, together with “open contestation” about what that meant in practice.
  • The modern Supreme Court, far from restoring the original ideals of the First Amendment, wrongly rejected the American settlement and instead declared that secularism is the controlling principle of constitutional law.  This brought an end to the open discussion and debate about our differences, and sought (usually inconsistently and incoherently) to impose hard rules to limit the role of religion in law and government.
  • The result is that religious freedom is in jeopardy, particularly when it comes into conflict with the modern ideologies of egalitarianism and sexual liberation.
  • In the end, Prof. Smith is pessimistic about the future of religious freedom in America, and he believes that life in our nation will suffer as a result.    Given all that we have seen in recent years, it is difficult to disagree with him.  One thinks of the intransigent refusal of legislatures to grant sufficient conscience clause exemptions from laws redefining marriage, or expanding availability of contraception or abortion.  Or we can cite the Administration’s denial of the right of religious organizations to choose their own ministers, according to the dictates of their faith.  And there is always the rhetorical tactic of certain politicians to brand religious believers as “extremists” who are unwelcome in their own home states. Or the tendency of judicial opinions to brand religious beliefs on marriage as irrational hatred or bigotry.

    This book is an important contribution to the ongoing debate over the role of religion in contemporary society. It provides a much-needed balance to the “standard story”, which has dominated the public discussion and the law-making process. It is essential that legal professionals, policy makers, and engaged citizens understand the true history of religious liberty.

    Prof. Smith reminds us all that religious liberty is very fragile, but it is very important to a healthy American society. Such a fundamental freedom, deeply rooted in American and Western history, cannot be so lightly thrown away, or forced to depend on narrow majorities of the Supreme Court. In particular, he warns us that “states that fail to protect religious freedom usually trample on other freedoms as well”.

    The Enemies of Religious Freedom Declare Themselves

    Saturday, July 12th, 2014

    There have been many results from the Supreme Court’s religious freedom ruling in the Hobby Lobby/Conestoga Wood case.  One is that we can more readily identify many people who either lack fundamental reading comprehension skills or are subject to such ideological blindness that they egregiously mis-characterize what the case actually held.

    Perhaps most important, though, is that we can now see very clearly who the enemies of religious freedom are — and we can see that they are heavily represented in the Democratic Party delegations in Congress.

    This can be seen very plainly from new bills introduced in both the House and the Senate (S.2578 and H.R.5051), reportedly in consultation with the Administration.  These bills purport to be a way of overturning the Hobby Lobby/Conestoga Wood decision, and forcing for-profit businesses to comply with the HHS mandate to provide insurance coverage for abortion-causing drugs, contraception, and sterilization.

    But they go much, much further than that.  In fact, they directly and seriously endanger the religious freedom of every church and religious non-profit, and any other organization that is operated by faith-based persons who don’t want to cooperate with evil.  This is a proposal of “startling breadth” (to quote Justice Ginsburg’s dissent in Hobby Lobby/Conestoga Wood), and astonishing audacity.

    As with every bit of legislation the devil (literally) is in the details.  So let’s break down the actual language of the bill, and explain what it means.  Here is what the House version of the bill says (in italics), with my analysis to follow:

    (a) In General — An employer that establishes or maintains a group health plan for its employees (and any covered dependents of such employees) shall not deny coverage of a specific health care item or service with respect to such employees (or dependents) where the coverage of such item or service is required under any provision of Federal law or the regulations promulgated thereunder.

    The key word here is “employer”.  Nowhere in the bill does it define that word, so it is an outright lie to claim that the bill is limited to overturning the Supreme Court’s decision, which was limited to family-owned corporations.  This bill would instead reach every single employer in the United States that has an employee health plan — individual business owners, churches, schools.  Nobody would be exempted.

    It would also cover any health care “item or service” required to be covered by federal law or regulation — which is so broad as to potentially include any number of evils our federal government might choose, such as abortion, contraception, IVF, sex-change operations, and euthanasia drugs.

    The significance of this becomes even more clear when we look at another section of the bill:

    (b) Application — Subsection (a) shall apply notwithstanding any other provision of Federal law, including [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act].

    This would give employers essentially no defense to any law passed by Congress or imposed by executive fiat that would substantially burden their faith by requiring them to cooperate with evil.  In other words, people of faith would be reduced to second-class citizen status.  This echoes infamous prior court decisions, as if the bill’s sponsors thought that religious employers “had no rights which the [government] was bound to respect” (to quote the Dred Scott decision], or as if they were not “recognized in the law as persons in the whole sense” (to quote Roe v. Wade).

    It gets even worse — here’s where the real evil lies:

    (c) Regulations — The regulations [relating to the current HHS mandate] shall apply with respect to this section.  The Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and the Treasury may modify such regulations consistent with the purpose and findings of this Act.

    In other words, the government shall have carte blanche to change the HHS mandate at a whim, or to impose any other mandate they wish.  So there is no limit to what can be done by a future administration with even more commitment to the Cult of Moloch (i.e., the Planned Parenthood, pro-death agenda) than the current regime.  Nothing would stop them from removing the current HHS mandate exemption for churches and “accommodation” for religious non-profits, and enact regulations that would require coverage for abortion, euthanasia, you name it — and there would be no defense under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

    If there were any further question about the fragility of religious freedom in America today, this bill removes any doubt.  The sponsors of this wicked bill have openly declared themselves to be enemies of religious freedom.

    Here is a list of the House sponsors — 142 as of the date this is posted, all of them Democrats.  Here are the Senate sponsors — 42 of them, all Democrats, including the original sponsor of RFRA, our own Senator Charles Schumer. If your representative is on the list, contact them right away.

    Nelson Mandela once said “I cherish my own freedom dearly, but I care even more for your freedom.”  Ask your representative why they don’t agree, and remember well the answer, when they come asking for your vote.

    Getting Past the Hysteria

    Thursday, July 3rd, 2014

    The Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby/Conestoga Wood case has certainly been the cause of much controversy. This is natural, and to be expected, since it touches upon so many key issues in the so-called “culture war”, and it was both a hotly contested and much anticipated decision.

    But much of the reaction to the Court’s decision has been, well, a bit unhinged. Some have claimed that the Court was casting women back into virtual slavery. One legal commentator for a major newspaper stated openly — and bizarrely — that the reason for the Court’s majority ruling was simply that they lacked a uterus.  Right.

    Why all the hysteria?

    I think much of it is a result of the nature of the controversy itself — one that goes to the heart of conflicting visions of who we are.

    One of the key issues underlying this case is the role of women in society, and how that is to be assured. Everyone agrees that women should be a full and equal participants in society, free from unfair treatment. But we are in a pluralistic society, and there are many views on how that is to be accomplished, which necessarily involves differing views on the questions of fertility, sexuality, human life.

    Many women and couples consider controlling their fertility to be a core value, and have organized their lives around it. They believe that easy, low-cost access to contraceptives is essential to their lives.  They view anything that works against that value, and, indeed, anything that casts doubts upon it or appears to disagree with it, as a direct attack on their self-definition and identity.

    We disagree with that value. But, in our pluralistic society, it is a reality that we must recognize.  The fact is that those views have a place at the table in the public discussion.

    But pluralism is a two-way street. As Catholics, we have a different view of sexuality, fertility, and human life.  Our values are based on our faith, reason, and a particular understanding of the nature of the human person. We believe that fertility is a gift, not an “unwanted physical condition”. It’s a blessing given to us by God, inherent in human nature as male and female, and not a curse. To deny this is to deny an essential part of who we are, and to set us at war with ourselves.  As a result, we believe that the “contraceptive mentality” is bad for individuals, relationships, and society.  We are convinced (largely from our own failings and hard-earned experience) that the virtue of chastity is a beautiful, beneficial way for people to live and love.

    We also believe in the sanctity of human life, from the first moment of conception. It is a scientific fact, not a matter of religious belief, that at the moment of conception a new, individual, unrepeatable human being comes into existence. We also believe, based both on faith and reason, that it is a grave injustice to deliberately end the life of any innocent human being, and is a sad failure in our duty to love one another.

    We have also organized our lives around these values, which are central to our religious faith.  It’s not just something that we do on Sunday morning, or in the privacy of our homes.  It’s essential to our self-worth and identity, and it affects all aspects of our lives.

    We understand that many people disagree with us — just as we disagree with them.   But, again, in our pluralistic society, it is a reality that others must recognize.  The fact is that our views have a place at the table in the public discussion.  In the end, people should certainly be free to make their own decisions about fertility and sexuality and the meaning of their lives – but so should religious people.

    The American way is to guarantee the freedom, equality and autonomy of everyone, including religious people, to live lives of integrity, in keeping with their core values.   We have long recognized that.  Our laws are full of religious accommodations, like the exemption from the draft for Quakers, and the freedom from saying the Pledge of Allegiance for Jehovah’s Witnesses.  This is a matter of basic respect, civility, and just plain good manners. 

    The bottom line is that there is a serious conflict of values going on here, one that is difficult, if not impossible, to resolve definitively.  There’s no easy answer, no magic bullet, that will solve all the disputes and make everyone happy.  And “winner take all” is a terrible way to conduct politics — some people will triumph, but it also means that many of our neighbors will be “losers”.   That’s no way to have a healthy community.

    People naturally respond emotionally, even hysterically, when they’re scared that their way of life and values are threatened.  Even though we won this particular case, we’re scared too — our religious freedom is very fragile right now.

    So maybe it would be a good idea to turn the volume down a bit, recognize the raw feelings on all sides, and try to find a way that we can preserve as much as possible of everyone’s values, while preserving a sense of unity, solidarity, and mutual love.

    An Encouraging Victory for Religious Liberty

    Tuesday, July 1st, 2014

    The Supreme Court has issued a very important ruling on the HHS mandate.  By a narrow 5 to 4 majority, the Court found in favor of the religious liberty rights of two family-owned businesses, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood.  The Court held that they do not have to fund insurance coverage for abortion-causing contraceptives that they consider to violate their religious beliefs about the sanctity of human life.

    This is a significant victory for religious liberty. It shows that the government does not have unlimited power to force people to violate their beliefs. It is also a vindication for all those who have objected to the HHS mandate, and who have defended religious freedom.

    There has been, and will continue to be, a great deal of commentary on this decision.  At this point, though, it’s valuable to make sure that we understand clearly just what the Court did, and what it did not do:

  • The decision was was based on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”), and not the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.   However, the Court recognized that RFRA offers broader protection to religious liberty than the First Amendment.
  • The decision does not in any way restrict access to contraceptives, nor will it impose any additional costs on women who seek them.  This ruling is very limited — it just requires the government to find some other way to accomplish the basic (and in my view, lamentable) goal of the HHS mandate — free contraceptives — without requiring the corporations to pay for them.
  • However, the ruling does mean that the government, in pursuit of its public policy goals, cannot impose substantial burdens on religious believers, without seeking some way to accommodate or exempt them.
  • It is not clear what impact this decision will have — if any — on the challenges brought against the HHS mandate by religious non-profit organizations like the Little Sisters of the Poor and Catholic Charities.   There is much speculation about this, even to the point of very close analysis of a particular sentence in the majority opinion, but that’s all it is — speculation.  The Court specifically left that issue open for a future decision.
  • This case upholds the idea that corporations have legal standing under RFRA (in legal parlance, they are “persons” within the meaning of the statute).  The Court recognized that corporations are just vehicles through which real, live human beings act, and, in some cases, exercise their own constitutional rights.  This is an important recognition of the Catholic social teaching about the value of mediating institutions that operate in society and stand between the state and individuals.
  • The ruling was limited by the Court to closely-held corporations that are controlled by religious people who operate with explicitly religious missions.  It does not give carte blanche to all corporations to ignore generally applicable laws.
  • Nor does the case give automatic permission for religious people to engage in discrimination on account of race, sex, etc.  Despite the fear-mongering in the dissenting opinion and in the media, this notion was specifically ruled out in the majority and concurring opinions.  Any claim for a religious exemption will still have to satisfy the scrutiny of a court, applying the standards of RFRA to the particular facts of each individual situation.
  • The Court did not strike down the Affordable Care Act or the HHS mandate in general.  That was not at issue in the case at all.
  • The discussion and debate about this issue, and about the general intersection of law and religion, will certainly continue.  A pluralistic society like ours should recognize and respect a broad scope for the fundamental human right to freedom of conscience, consistent with public order and safety.

    So we have much to be thankful for.  Please give thanks to God for the wisdom of the Justices in the majority of the Supreme Court, and for the courage and persistence of the owners of Hobby Lobby, Conestoga Wood and their attorneys, particularly those at the Becket Fund and Alliance Defending Freedom.

    Resistance to the Dictatorship of Relativism

    Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

    Pope Benedict famously warned about the impending dangers of a “dictatorship of relativism” — a state where truth is denied, morality is defined by subjective desires, authentic tolerance is extinguished, and political power is used to force compliance with the whims of the day.

    Well, we certainly have enough relativism in our culture, and the slide to dictatorship seems to be accelerating.

    Just in the past few weeks we’ve seen more and more Black-Robed Platonic Guardian Rulers on the Courts, er, I mean federal judges, overruling the democratic decisions of legislatures and the people, and redefining marriage.  We’ve seen elected officials foreswearing their oaths of office to uphold the laws, and refusing to defend the authentic definition of marriage.  We’ve seen hysterical and mendacious accounts of proposed religious liberty legislation, even to the point where defenders of the free exercise of religion are compared to Jim Crow racists.  Intolerance from the forces of “tolerance” is becoming the language of the day.

    We need to be clear about what is at the heart of this situation, and what our response must be.  There are several fundamental truths that are being denied by our current culture:

  • Being male and female is an inherent aspect of the human person, they are not arbitrary and irrational concepts.
  • Marriage is ordained by God and by nature to unite a man and woman in a life-long bond that benefits them as persons, and that is the proper context for sexual relations and the procreation and raising of children.
  • A homosexual inclination is contrary to the true meaning and purpose of human sexuality as created by God and enshrined in human nature.
  • Homosexual conduct is always contrary to the will of God and the nature of the human person.
  • Persons with a  homosexual inclination must be treated with full human dignity and cannot be treated with unjust discrimination;  however, their unions cannot be recognized as equivalent to marriage, and their sexual activity cannot be approved.
  • Every human person has the right and obligation to follow their conscience, even when it disagrees with human laws.
  • The budding “dictatorship of relativism” is becoming more and more intolerant of these truths, and will gradually subject those who hold them to criticism, ostracism, and legal penalties.

    In the face of this, we must be ready to resist.

    The starting place for resistance is to recall several key points, most eloquently explained in Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, and Vaclav Havel’s The Power of the Powerless:

  • Resistance is a duty of all citizens when faced by injustice.  It is not an “extra-credit” activity.
  • It must be always be grounded in the truth.  It makes no compromise with lies, and always seeks to expose them.
  • It must always be pursued with love and respect.  It is not an excuse for violence and lawlessness.
  • The goal is conversion of heart on the part of those who support injustice, not overbearing their will with power.  It’s message always is “come, join us”, and never “we will force you to agree”.
  • The most important tactic is our willingness to testify to the truth by our words and our actions, and our refusal to cooperate with injustice and lies.
  • Underlying this duty of resistance is an important understanding of the freedom of conscience, and my duty of obedience to the truth rather than to mere human laws.  The government may attempt to coerce my external cooperation with injustice by imposing penalties, fines, and so on.  But no government, and no law, can force me to accept a lie as the truth.

    We cannot have any illusions.  Many, if not most of our family and friends will conform, and will consider us to be strange.  We may be estranged from loved ones.  It will be painful.

    Yes, we will be persecuted — indeed, it has already begun.  It will be a soft persecution, nothing like the hardship  suffered by our brethren in countries like Syria.  Nonetheless,  we will feel the steel fist under the velvet glove.

    Resist.  The power of truth and love cannot be extinguished.

    The Little Sisters of the Poor and the HHS Mandate

    Monday, January 13th, 2014

    [Last week, I was invited to participate in an online debate at U.S. News and World Report, about the lawsuit brought by the Little Sisters of the Poor against the HHS Mandate.  Here is what I contributed.]

    The Little Sisters of the Poor have dedicated their lives to giving witness to their Catholic faith by providing nursing home care for elderly needy people.   They do beautiful work, and are extraordinarily dedicated. You would think our society would cherish this mission and help it succeed.

    Instead, the Administration is forcing the Sisters into a terrible “Sophie’s choice” — violate their faith, or be forced out of business.  The issue is the “HHS Mandate” — the requirement that all employer health insurance policies include contraceptives (including “emergency contraception”, which can cause early abortions) and sterilization.  Catholics, and many others, object to this because those services directly contradict our belief in the sanctity of human life and sexuality.

    The Administration has created a narrow exemption for churches, but not for religious non-profit organizations like the Sisters’ nursing homes.  The best the Administration offers is an “accommodation”.  But to qualify, the Sisters have to file a “permission slip” directing their insurance company  to provide the offensive coverage.

    This is what the Sisters, and other religious organizations, can’t accept.  Filing that “permission slip” means they would be directly cooperating in something forbidden by their faith.  The government doesn’t have the right to force anyone to do that.

    Would anyone think it is acceptable for the government to force the Sisters to sign a form that gives explicit permission for someone to come into their nursing homes to euthanize their patients?  Of course not  — it would be an unthinkable violation of their religious freedom.  And remember, the Sisters are not imposing their beliefs on anyone — their employees, who freely chose to work for them, will still be free to obtain those services elsewhere.   Only the Sisters are being forced to violate their beliefs.

    This is not an abstract legal controversy — the real-world stakes are very high.  For standing up for their faith, the Sisters are facing fines of $100 per day per employee as of January 1.  They employ hundreds of people at their thirty nursing homes.  So do the math — they are looking at fines of over $50 million per year, which would put them out of business.

    The real victims of that would be the poor elderly people the Sisters serve, who would lose such wonderful care.  That would defeat the good intentions of the Affordable Care Act — ensuring health care for all, especially the most vulnerable.  That’s surely not in the public interest.

    Yet the Administration won’t even agree to delay the fines so the Sisters can argue their case on appeal — even though they’re now letting businesses drop health insurance for their employees completely, with no fine at all.   This isn’t public policy, it’s a coercive ideology that considers contraception, sterilization and abortion to be “sacred ground”, and that will brook no dissent from people of faith.

    All of society is enriched when religious groups serve needy people.  Only ideology is served by the Administration’s intolerance against the Little Sisters of the Poor.