A Bleak Outlook for Religious Liberty?

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 Culture of Death and Lawlessness

    September 17th, 2014

    The Culture of Death is a culture of lawlessness.  Once our nation violated the natural law by permitting the killing of innocents by abortion, it inevitably began to ignore or jettison other laws as well.  You can see this in what passes for Supreme Court “jurisprudence” on abortion, which has regularly invented Rube Goldberg-like legal arguments, twisted precedents, and distorted the meaning of language in order to perpetuate an unjust regime under which unborn children have no rights that our lawmakers are bound to respect.

    News in the past few days has brought new evidence of the inherent lawlessness of the Culture of Death.  A report by the Congressional Accountability Office has revealed that the implementation of the Affordable Care Act has resulted in massive taxpayer subsidizing of elective abortion.

    Remember, the Act was passed largely because of last-minute promises by the Administration.  They gave assurances that people would be able to buy plans that don’t cover elective abortions, and that no taxpayer funds would be used directly or indirectly to pay for elective abortions.  Health plans offered through the state exchanges would be permitted to cover abortion, but no taxpayer-funded subsidies were supposed to be used to buy coverage for elective abortion.  Insurers that covered elective abortions would be required to collect a separate payment from policy holders, in order to ensure that taxpayer subsidies did not pay for abortions.

    Many of us doubted the sincerity of those promises at the time and were dubious of the Administration’s commitment to put them into practice.  Our pessimism has proven to have been right. The GAO’s report found the following:

  • Twenty-eight states allow insurance plans sold on their exchanges to cover abortion. In those 28 states, 1,036 plans include elective abortion coverage, while 1,062 only cover abortion in the case of rape, incest or to preserve the mother’s life.
  • Every single taxpayer-supported plan sold in New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont, Rhode Island, and Hawaii covers elective abortion.
  • Other states, including our own, are nearly as bad — in New York, 405 out of the 426 plans offered cover elective abortions. In Massachusetts, 109 out of 111 cover abortions. In California, 86 out of the 90 plans cover it.  In these large states, between 95% and 98% of plans cover elective abortion.
  • The GAO specifically interviewed 18 insurers, who offered three-quarters of the coverage in the twenty-eight states that allow abortion coverage.  Fifteen confirmed that they covered all abortions, none of them charged separately for abortion coverage, and none of them even itemized the coverage on their bills.
  • To put it plainly, the law is being ignored on a massive scale.  Every American taxpayer is now paying for elective abortion, and millions of pro-life Americans have no choice but to pay out of their own pockets for the death of innocents.

    So much for promises and assurances from this lawless Administration, whose commitment to the Cult of Moloch is absolute.

    The Culture of Death corrupts everything it touches.  It has corrupted our legal and medical professions, and the rule of law itself.

    Encounter and Evangelization

    September 10th, 2014

    In this time of rapidly shifting cultural values — usually not for the better — the Church and Catholics are struggling to find the right way to proclaim the Gospel and live according to our faith.  The public witness of the Church and Catholics is becoming increasingly difficult, as our government and secularized culture becomes more hostile to us.  Each new day seems to bring a new challenge, and everyday Catholics are confused, uncertain, and frequently upset.

    I think that in times like these, it’s crucial to make sure that we remind ourselves of the fundamentals.

    The entire purpose of the Church is not to decide who can attend what dinner, or who can be part of a parade. The mission of the Church is to bring people into a loving encounter with Jesus Christ. That means we have to bring people to the real Jesus, and the model for this is the story with the woman caught in adultery (John 8:2-11).

    That meeting involved two things — compassion and conversion. Both are essential, and can never be separated. The woman was treated with compassion and mercy by Jesus, and thus was open to his call to conversion. If we fail to present both aspects of the encounter, we are lying to people and presenting a false Jesus — he’s not just about mercy, and he’s not only about conversion (and he’s never about condemnation). The real Jesus simultaneously says “I love you even when you’ve sinned”, and “come, follow me”.

    I think our Holy Father and our own Archbishop have realized that there are significant impediments in our culture to hearing the Gospel message, and thus people are unwilling to come to meet Jesus.  In the minds of all too many people, we are not seen as merciful and compassionate, but judgmental and condemnatory.  In response, our leaders have decided that we have to emphasize the message of mercy, so that people will be more open to hearing the message of conversion. In his closing remarks to the young men and women who attended World Youth Day in Rio, Pope Francis said this:

    Every one of you, each in his or her own way, was a means enabling thousands of young people to “prepare the way” to meet Jesus. And this is the most beautiful service we can give as missionary disciples. To prepare the way so that all people may know, meet and love the Lord.

    This is the task of the New Evangelization, and of the Church.  We have to make sure that when people encounter us, they’re encountering Christ, and feel both his compassion and his call to conversion.  When they see his face in our face, we will be fulfilling our mission.

    Yet Another Alleged “Accommodation”

    August 23rd, 2014

    The Administration has announced yet another set of new rules for the HHS abortion/contraception mandate, affecting religious non-profits (the so-called “accommodation” class) and closely-held for-profit corporations (e.g, Hobby Lobby).

    Remember that under the most recent version of the oft-amended rules, religious non-profits that wanted to take advantage of the accommodation had to file a document (“Form 700″) with their insurer. This document stated their objections to the coverage, and was the trigger for the insurance company to offer the benefits to the employees. The objection was that Form 700 was tantamount to signing a permission slip for immorality, and being required to fill it out was therefore a violation of religious and free speech rights.

    In these new rules, the Administration adopted the approach previously granted by the Supreme Court to the Little Sisters of the Poor and Wheaton College. Now, to qualify for the accommodation, the religious non-profits can file a statement of objection with the government. The government will then contact the insurance company and make arrangements for the coverage to be offered to the employees.

    It’s not clear whether this will be sufficient to protect the rights of the religious non-profits like the Little Sisters, Catholic Charities, and Christian colleges.  Their insurance plans will still be required to cover abortion-causing drugs and other offensive services (e.g., sterilization). There is also still the issue of self-insured entities, which will be directly paying for immoral things.  There’s also a concern about whether the insurance companies will be passing on the costs to the employers so that they will still be paying for the offensive services. We also have no way of knowing how the courts will view this new development — will the non-profits start losing cases now that the Administration has come this far?  We’ll have to wait for USCCB and other attorneys to analyze the new rules in detail.

    It appears also that closely-held for-profit businesses with religious objections (e.g., Hobby Lobby), will also be able to take advantage of the same procedure as the religious non-profits, and thus qualify for the accommodation. This was in response to the Supreme Court’s decision on the Hobby Lobby/Conestoga case.  The rules aren’t specific on which corporations will be given this protection, so it remains to be seen how broadly their religious liberty rights will be respected.

    This is yet another step in the Administration’s on-going campaign to normalize contraception and abortion as being essential to women’s health, and a standard part of health insurance policies.  It is also yet another example of their deafness to the objections of religious entities and people, who do not wish to be forced to violate their beliefs.

    The real solution to this problem is for the Administration to permit anyone with conscientious objections to be exempted entirely from the abortion/contraception mandate.  That doesn’t seem possible, given their deep commitment to a Culture of Death ideology, under which fertility is a curse, new life is the enemy, and religious believers are in the way.

    I, Too, Am a Nazarene

    July 24th, 2014

     

    The image at the top of this post is the Arabic letter “n”.  It has become known worldwide in the last week.  The violent fanatics who have formed what they call the “Islamic State” in northern Iraq and eastern Syria left this mark on the doorways of Christians who were living in areas they under their control to show where the “Nazarenes” — the Christians — were living.  This was significant because the Islamic State leaders had decreed that all Christians had to convert to Islam, pay a ruinous tax and live as serfs, or be killed.

    This is the latest terrible development in the destruction of historic Christian communities in the Middle East, particularly in areas of Syria and Iraq that have been ruined by warfare.   The Iraqi city of Mosul, which stands on the site of ancient Nineveh, has been a focus of the oppression.  Christians have been killed, churches have been burned, and the Archbishop and thousands of his flock have been forced to flee as refugees.

    Around the world this week, Christians have been expressing their solidarity with our oppressed brethren in the Middle East, by posting the “n” symbol, and by spreading the Twitter hashtag #WeAreN.

    The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.  I am awed by the witness and courage of my brothers and sisters in Christ.  There is little that I can do to help them or to relieve their suffering.  But I pray for them, and I humbly stand with them.

    I, too, am a Nazarene.

     

    My Immigration Story

    July 22nd, 2014

    In a nation of so many descendants of immigrants, there are a million stories. Most of them are about an ancestor who left their home to find a better life and to live in freedom. The stories are filled with heroism, idealism, and perseverance.

    Here’s my story. It’s actually not about me, it’s about my mother’s mother, whom I always knew as “Grandma Sheridan”. But because I wouldn’t be an American without her, I like to think that it really is my story too.  It’s the story about how she became an American.

    Grandma lived down the street from us when I was growing up, and we were always in and around her house. She was a wonderful, kind woman, who had seen many tough times but was always willing to help others. But her story wasn’t easy to piece together. Grandma didn’t like to talk about herself, or where she came from. And we had no contact with relatives from “over there”. So we’ve gradually accumulated documents, and drawn on the memories of relatives who are now gone to eternal life.

    Grandma was born and baptized Elizabeth Dowe, in 1885, in a tiny hamlet named Aghabullogue, in County Cork, Ireland. (I don’t speak any Irish, but I’m told that the town’s name sounds something like “Ah-Buh-Log”, with a long “o”, emphasis on the last syllable and a barely pronounced hard “g”). As a child, she was known as Lizzie, and she lived with her parents John and Hannah Hill Dowe, along with three sisters and a brother. She was the youngest in the family. They were farmers, and if you know anything about 19th century rural Ireland, you know that was a hard life.

    Her father and brother died at some point before 1900, when my Grandma was a young girl. According to the laws at the time, the farm passed to her uncle, so her family was turned out of their home and lost their livelihood. They lived for a short time in a house in a nearby area called Clonmoyle, but in 1901 they decided that they had enough of poverty in Ireland. They would go to America.

    This is the point in every immigrant’s story that always makes me pause and wonder. My Grandma was only 15 years old. Her mother was illiterate in English and Irish, and she had nothing waiting for her in America — no profession, no job, no place to live. My Grandma and her sisters could read and write English, but only one was employed in Ireland, as a dressmaker. As far as we know, the only people they knew in America were some cousins, who had come over earlier. That’s not a lot to go on.

    But what they had was an abundance of faith, hope, courage, and a yearning for a better life.

    They arrived in New York in 1902. And here’s the funny part of the story. They were on a ship that entered New York harbor, and thus passed under the watchful eye of the great lady who lifted her lamp beside the golden door to welcome my Grandma. When the ship arrived at Ellis Island, there was an announcement that all passengers in steerage had to get off. But my Grandma’s mother had managed to get Second Class tickets, so they decided that the announcement didn’t apply to them, and they didn’t get off at Ellis Island. Instead, they sailed up to the pier in Manhattan and set foot in America without ever going through any of the legal immigration process.

    And so — my Grandma Sheridan was an illegal alien.

    They settled in New York, and my Grandma worked for a time as a domestic servant in the household of the publisher of the New York Times. In 1911, she married John Sheridan, another Irish immigrant who was a greengrocer with the A&P Company. He was an American citizen already, and that’s how my Grandma became a legitimate American citizen. They lived mostly in the northern Bronx (in the same neighborhood where I still live), and had six children, the youngest of whom was my beloved mother, Claire.

    My grandfather died in 1932, leaving Grandma to finish raising her young family — my mother was only 5 years old at the time. Grandma struggled, relying on income from the older children and dividends from A&P stock. But she was a firm believer in education, and she sent all of her children to college, even the three girls — which was certainly remarkable for that time. She was also a committed Catholic who took her faith seriously. There was never any question about the faith being handed down to her children.

    Grandma took her American citizenship seriously. The flag flew every holiday. She was a voracious reader of the newspapers, followed current events very closely, and was absolutely committed to voting in every election. I recall very clearly her insisting that we had a duty to vote, and that if we didn’t vote, we couldn’t complain.

    Her three sons all served honorably in the military in World War II — one was an officer in the Navy, another an officer in the Army Air Corps, and one was a grunt in the Army who landed on D+2 and went on to be awarded the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. At least six of her grandchildren have served in the military, and many of us have served in government offices. Patriotism runs deep in the Sheridan blood, which you would expect with Grandma as a role model.

    Grandma didn’t have any interest in being considered an “Irish-American” — she was absolutely American, through and through, and she was proud and grateful for this country. When she died at the age of 95, she had lived a rich, long, generous life in her beloved home country.

    A few years ago, my wife Peggy and I visited Ireland, and went to Aghabullogue. It’s still a tiny hamlet, with little more than a church, a store, a football field and a pub, surrounded by beautiful rich farmland. I stood in the graveyard of the old parish church where my grandmother was baptized, and where she went to Mass for the first fifteen years of her life. The chapel has since fallen into ruins, replaced by a more modern building close by. It was profoundly moving to look around, and realize that the scene was virtually identical to what my Grandma saw every day of her youth. I was able to see the world that she left so that her future family — and mine — could be born in America.

    Grandma Sheridan’s story is about an America that was willing to give a poor homeless girl a chance at hope and prosperity. I believe that story is still true today. I believe that America is still open to other young girls and boys who are yearning for the same kind of life that my Grandma was able to have, the kind of life that she was brave enough to give to her children, grandchildren, and beyond.

    I believe in my immigration story. I think it is the story of America. And I thank God for it, and for Grandma Sheridan for having lived it.

    Trying to Think about Immigration

    July 21st, 2014

    The debate over immigration has reached a fever pitch in America, fueled by the heart-rending spectacle of the plight of all those unaccompanied children who have been coming to our southern border in recent months.

    I am no expert on immigration, but I’ve been trying to think about this issue from a Catholic perspective, guided by the teachings of our bishops and our Holy Father. It seems to me that there are a number of fundamental principles that are in tension in this area, and it extraordinarily difficult to make them all fit together well.

    Let’s take as our starting point a teaching from St. John XXIII, in his encyclical Pacem in Terris:

    Every human being has the right to freedom of movement and of residence within the confines of his own country; and, when there are just reasons for it, the right to emigrate to other countries and take up residence there. The fact that one is a citizen of a particular State does not detract in any way from his membership in the human family as a whole, nor from his citizenship in the world community (25).

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes the basic issues very clearly:

    The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him. Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens. (2241)

    These principles show us that the way we think about this problem is the key consideration.  There is no question that our civil authorities have an obligation to preserve and protect the common good of our particular political society, which includes enactment and enforcement of just laws. People have a right to emigrate to seek prosperity and freedom for themselves and their families, but they also have an obligation to obey the laws of the nation they enter.

    But we always have to remember that human laws and political structures don’t exist as ends in themselves, and they don’t have the preeminent place in the hierarchy of goods. They don’t define the full scope of human aspiration or fulfillment. States are purely provisional entities that exist solely to provide for the good of the people within them.  I love America, but it is not a divinely-ordained institution, and it is not essential to the divine will or to the plan of salvation. To think otherwise can come very close to a form of idolatry.

    As a result, we have to think outside of our political boundaries, and be concerned with all members of the human family — not just those who happen to hold a particular citizenship, or who speak a certain language, or who had the good fortune to have ancestors who emigrated prior to a certain date, or who managed to find a home within some arbitrary political boundaries.

    Our policy solutions also can’t be dominated solely by economic factors.  We have to beware of any way of thinking that treats immigrants as mere means to be used for ends, welcomed to the extent that they are useful to us and discarded when they are not. People are not objects, and must be treated as the image of God among us.

    Articulating these principles is easy.  Finding the right policies to implement them is certainly not so easy.  Our bishops and the Holy Father are not saying that we have to have open borders, or that people can disregard the law at a whim.  They are saying that we need to address the humanitarian needs of immigrants — particularly the unaccompanied children — as best we can, as our top priority.  We then have to work to reunite them with family members, without just throwing them on buses back or interning them in refugee camps.  Long-term answers would then include repatriation, or admitting them as refugees or as temporary residents based on an evaluation of their individual cases.

    On top of this, we have to make sure that we work with the governments in the source and transit countries to improve the awful social conditions that have led to this emigration, and to prevent exploitation of migrants.  This is crucial.  The drug trade — largely fueled by drug use in America — has led to a disastrous disintegration of much of Latin American society.  The problem of immigration can’t be addressed without confronting this reality, and accepting our responsibility for correcting it.

    When we listen to the Catholic perspective on this issue, we see that persons come first in our considerations, and our priorities start to fall into place.  We won’t’t make decisions based on fear, suspicion, party politics, or prejudice.   And we can work together to formulate sensible public policies that promote the common good and respect the fundamental human rights and needs of all.

    The Enemies of Religious Freedom Declare Themselves

    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

    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

    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.