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I’d Like to Say: Religious Freedom Is at Stake

NEARLY EVERY WEEK there’s media hype about something the government has done. Supporters and critics insist that the latest law, judicial decision, or executive action will change the world as we know it. Yet we wake the next morning to discover the world looks much the same.

A problem with this “Chicken Little cycle” is that when something momentous does occur, it’s more easily dismissed, even when it shouldn’t be. This includes current threats to religious freedom by federal and state governments. In their 2012 statement on religious liberty, Our First, Most Cherished Liberty, the U.S. bishops write: “We address an urgent summons to our fellow Catholics and fellow Americans to be on guard, for religious liberty is under attack, both at home and abroad.”

This is an alarming, but undoubtedly necessary, call to action. To the degree that government marginalizes or silences religious voices and institutions, we’ll find ourselves living in a very different society. Religious teachings and institutions will be less visible and influential. There will be more government intrusion into the internal affairs of religious institutions. The opinion that religion has nothing to offer that hasn’t already been said
by science will prevail. In particular, Christian ideas about human sexuality, marriage, family, and sexual differences will increasingly be viewed as “discrimination” or “human rights violations.”

Sex and the State

It’s hard to overlook a theme running through the majority of recent challenges to religious freedom. The federal government strongly disagrees with the Catholic Church’s positions on human sexuality concerning contraception, nonmarital sexual intercourse, and abortion, and insists that these positions constitute violations of women’s freedom.

Yet more than one non-Catholic writer has pointed out how prophetic the Church has been regarding the harms that women would suffer should government throw its weight behind separating sex, procreation, and commitment. Fueled in part by legal abortion and government-sponsored contraceptive programs, we have seen not only the objectification of women, but also a rise in rates of abortion, nonmarital births, and failed marriages.

The government position has been developing for quite a while. It promotes sexual self-expression and sexual gratification free of reference to, or the possibility of, children. Beginning with “sexual privacy” cases as far back as 1965, it reached its zenith in the 1992 Supreme Court abortion decision holding that matters relating to sex and procreation are matters of constitutional liberty, with liberty defined, in the words of that ruling, as “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

This led to the 2003 Supreme Court announcement of a constitutional right to homosexual sodomy. The same reasoning is being used by those seeking the creation of a federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

It seems worth noting here that the temptation to challenge the most fundamental truths about the human person is as old as Adam and Eve. People of every age suffer the hereditary inclination to tell our Maker that we are in charge of truth and error, life and death, and the meanings of basic goods like marriage, sex, and freedom itself. Perhaps our current struggles are just the latest version of this age-old struggle for power.

The HHS Uproar of 2012

Over the past year the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a rule requiring virtually all health-insurance policies to provide coverage of contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs.

The mandate contains a narrow religious exemption only for those religious employers who primarily hire and serve people from their own faith community. As noted by several Catholic leaders, neither Jesus Christ nor Blessed Mother Teresa would qualify for this exemption! As of this writing, the administration has promised further accommodations for Catholic religious institutions, but the mandate for religious institutions is scheduled to go into effect a year from now.

In February Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, testified before Congress about this mandate: “This is not a matter of whether contraception may be prohibited by the government. This is not even a matter of whether contraception may be supported by the government. Instead, it is a matter of whether religious people and institutions may be forced by the government to provide coverage for contraception or sterilization, even if that violates their religious beliefs.”

Leading religious-freedom experts believe that recent actions violate both the free exercise clause of the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”) and the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Catholic and non-Catholic entities have brought suit against the HHS mandate, claiming violations of these laws.

It shouldn’t be difficult for the Church to show that requiring all its educational, healthcare, and social-service institutions to purchase coverage violating long-held Catholic teachings is a substantial burden. The Church might also argue that the government is impermissibly interfering with the internal affairs of religion when it inserts itself into the relationship between an employer and its employees.

Consider how it changes the tone of a religious institution if, instead of its being permitted to set the terms of employment for its employees, the federal government inserts into that relationship a public or private entity that offers employees health coverage the employer refuses to provide on the grounds of Church teaching.

Imagine the minor adolescent daughter of an employee being contacted by a government contractor who tells her that she has access, without her parents’ knowledge, to free, confidential birth control, or even a morning-after pill that can act to destroy embryos. This is what HHS is currently proposing.

The Supreme Court’s January decision in Hosanna-Tabor gives us hope. There, the court refused to permit a federal agency to contradict a religious institution’s choice of ministers on the grounds that the state has no authority to interfere in this crucial facet of religious exercise. (The dispute was over a teacher dismissal at the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Redford, Michigan.) This case could well assist the Church in its disputes over the HHS mandate, given the interference the mandate represents with religious institutions’ governance of their own internal affairs.

Far-Reaching Implications

The HHS mandate is not the only current threat to religious freedom. Additional controversies involving government meddling in religious affairs abound. These affect Catholic social-service agencies, particularly adoption agencies, Catholic hospitals, universities, international humanitarian policies, and services to immigrants and refugees. Resolutions of these disputes will affect the conduct of the Catholic Church in the United States for many years to come.

A reduced respect for religious freedom in the United States has broad implications—at the individual, community, and international level. Every religious institution—as well as individuals and business owners—will be affected by the legal conclusions reached when the dust settles on these current controversies.

Some institutions will challenge the government, perhaps to the point of contempt of the law. Some might close rather than pay the steep fines that would be imposed.

It should also be noted that women, particularly the poorest, will have lost a powerful ally if the Catholic Church is forced to choose between continuing its ministries and obeying the government. The Catholic Church is one of the last (and one of the most persistent and influential) voices supporting a vision of human sexuality that includes respect for the human body and for procreation, and decrying the objectification of women.

Finally, it’s not an overstatement to say that threats to religious freedom are worldwide. What will become of the U.S. voice on behalf of religious freedom if religious freedom is severely eroded here at home? What will become of concepts like equality, dignity, and natural rights in national and international (e.g., United Nations) documents and discussions without centuries of Judeo-Christian sources and witness to inform them?

Our bishops are clear on this matter: “Our faith requires us to defend the religious liberty granted us by God, and protected in our Constitution. . . . We encourage you to hold firm, to stand fast, and to insist upon what belongs to you by right as Catholics and Americans. Our country deserves the best we have to offer, including our resistance to violations of our first freedom.”

For reprints of this article from Catholic Update, see, item C0812.


“It is imperative that the entire Catholic community in the United States come to realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres. . . . Of particular concern are certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion.”

—Pope Benedict XVI

Six Things Everyone Should Know About the HHS Mandate

1. The mandate does not exempt Catholic charities, schools, universities, or hospitals.

2. The mandate forces these institutions and others, against their conscience, to pay for things they consider immoral.

3. The mandate forces coverage of sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs and devices as well as contraception.

4. Catholics of all political persuasions are unified in their opposition to the mandate.

5. Many other religious and secular people and groups have spoken out strongly against the mandate.

6. The federal mandate is much stricter than existing state mandates.

—U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

“Everyone should be immune from coercion by individuals, social groups, and every human power, so that, within due limits, no men or women are forced to act against their convictions. . . . The right to religious freedom is based on the very dignity of the human person as known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself.”

—Declaration on Religious Liberty, Second Vatican Council