A Crossroad for Religious Liberty

It is becoming increasingly clear that we are reaching a critical point in America, where fundamental questions of religious liberty will be decided.  Decisions will be made by the courts over the next few months and years that will shape the freedom of religion in our nation.

The Supreme Court has agreed to take two important cases.  Two private employers owned by people who take their Christian faith seriously are challenging the HHS mandate (which requires health insurance plans to cover contraception, including abortion-causing drugs and devices).  The particular legal issues are interesting — the scope of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, and whether for-profit businesses have rights under the Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  At stake is the ability of religious people to give full expression to their faith, even when they are carrying out commercial activity.

Other key cases are working their way through the courts.  A decision was just handed down by a federal district court in Pennsylvania, protecting the religious freedom of Catholic institutions that reject the HHS mandate.  This case is but one of many others filed by religious organizations seeking to vindicate their right to give witness to the Gospel, free of morally offensive government regulations.

Even more important than these particular cases, though, is the underlying debate over the very nature of religious liberty.

In each of these current court cases, the Administration has taken a very narrow and crabbed position on the scope of religious freedom.  They have essentially said that religious liberty extends to devotional and worship activities, and no further — that it is something exercised on Sunday morning, or in the privacy of our homes, but which must be put aside on Monday morning when people go out to work.  Despite a specific rebuke of this argument by the Supreme Court in 2011 (in the Hosanna Tabor case — see here and here), the Administration continues to try to limit our religious freedom to mere “freedom of worship”.

There is a growing number of people who agree with the Administration — people who consider themselves “liberal” or “progressive”, but who really are radical secularists who see little or no value in religion in the public square, or who pooh-pooh our concerns about religious freedom.  This editorial from the Times is fairly typical of this point of view. I have experienced this attitude many times in public debates — most recently at a debate I participated in at NYU over the re-definition of marriage — where there was an assumption that religious beliefs were disqualified from even being considered as part of the discussion.

This is unacceptable.  Our religious beliefs stem from the very core of our being, and are expressed by every aspect of our lives.  They cannot be confined to a narrow scope of the private sphere.  The Gospel is for every aspect of our lives, and we are on a sacred mission to spread it to all.  All of society benefits from the contribution of religious beliefs to the public debate and to the common good.

We are reaching a critical moment in the debate.  It is timely, then, that we have Pope Francis’ new apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, on the New Evangelization.  In this document, the Holy Father gets right to the heart of the our current debate over religious liberty:

A healthy pluralism, one which genuinely respects differences and values them as such, does not entail privatizing religions in an attempt to reduce them to the quiet obscurity of the individual’s conscience or to relegate them to the enclosed precincts of churches, synagogues or mosques. This would represent, in effect, a new form of discrimination and authoritarianism. The respect due to the agnostic or non-believing minority should not be arbitrarily imposed in a way that silences the convictions of the believing majority or ignores the wealth of religious traditions. In the long run, this would feed resentment rather than tolerance and peace. (255)

Our nation is clearly in danger of moving into a time where religious belief is victimized by this “discrimination and authoritarianism”.   The freedom of all is threatened when the freedom of any is at risk.  We are at a crossroad.

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