The Thorny Question of Freedom of Religion

The Thorny Question of Freedom of Religion February 13, 2012

I haven’t been around much this weekend since my fellow bloggers and I have been drafting and re-drafting chapters for Undoing Babel . But when I haven’t been writing, deleting, staring at the computer and crying into my tea about the cruelty that is Writer’s Block, I’ve been following the unfolding HHS mandate altercation with great interest.

Here are some great articles on it (and my two personal favorites). I agree with the Bishops. The HHS is still violating the the essential religions liberty of Catholics and those Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Mormons and others who find the use of contraception and/or abortifacient drugs immoral. Obama’s “accommodation” is nothing more than magical thinking. The core issue of the government intruding on religious liberty is still present, still very real.

I could go on at length about the HHS mandate and why it’s terrible and why I am truly frightened by this mandate. Lest any of you think that this is simply a rule without consequences, my husband is employed by Ave Maria, a solid organization whose president has denounced the mandate and stated unequivocally that Ave Maria will not comply. If the mandate is not rescinded, that means we will not have health insurance. Neither will all of my friends here in Ave Maria, nor their many children. It’s highly likely that Ave Maria and other small Catholic schools who stand firm would cease to exist under the heavy fines the government would level at them for refusing to offer insurance. Private insurance would not be an option for us either, as buying into a private insurance company would be an equal violation of conscience since we would know that the insurance company was required to provide free contraceptive services. They’d accomplish this the only way possible — cost sharing. Our money would indirectly fund abortifacient drugs and contraceptives, which we could not do in good conscience.

This rule could, and will, fundamentally alter the lives of many Catholics in this country for the worse. It will be a very real time of oppression for us.

But all of this is still to come. Those are bridges we will cross if they must be crossed. What I’ve been thinking about over the weekend is the fundamental difficulty of a country which guarantees freedom of religion.

In most of western Europe, the socialization that has taken place over the last 40 years has engendered just these types of changes. Free healthcare for all, including contraception, abortion, and sterilization. “Freedom of religion” still exists in Europe in one sense: the people are free to practice their religion privately, to attend whichever church they like, and to speak freely about what they believe. They are not allowed to allow their religious beliefs to interfere with matters of the state, and the state has control over most aspects of European life.

But that’s only true for certain religions. Last year the French government banned Muslim women from wearing the burqa anywhere in public. I’ll admit that I was pleased when this ban went through. After all, the Muslim religion is hideously oppressive to women! Even if they wear the burqa voluntarily, it’s because their religion has brainwashed them into thinking they are worth less than men and shouldn’t show their faces! How horrific!

Now I’m feeling fairly squeamish about that reaction. It’s the same argument many liberals are using against the Catholic Church…that the Church is oppressive to women, that it forces women to do nothing but bear children. It is no doubt the reason why Catholics’ freedom of conscience was so easily dismissed by Kathleen Sebellius. I believe she is very wrong, but her motives are doubtless seen by her and the Obama administration as well-intentioned. They are trying to bring women freedom from oppression by giving them access to contraceptives, just as Sarkozy and the French parliament banned the burqa because it “contradicted France’s values of dignity and equality.”

France is not a nation known for a commitment to freedom of religion the way America is. The ban on the burqa is less problematic there than it would be here. Here it would be met with outrage on a much greater scale, I believe, than the HHS mandate was. It just isn’t socially or politically correct these days to extend freedom of religion to people who disapprove of contraceptives. It’s an almost barbaric mindset to most Americans. Yet the burqa, while not exactly squaring with most Americans’ belief in the equality of men and women, is seen as a curiosity that doesn’t really hurt anyone. It isn’t as if, God forbid, a baby comes out of it.

But I think this leads us to a tricky question about the fundamental nature of freedom of religion. I used to think it was a simple thing to uphold.  No longer. Now I think guaranteeing an entire country of people total freedom of religion is well-nigh impossible. It was one thing when the majority of the religions in the country shared core values and common beliefs, and when government was quite small and questions like, “who will pay for my government-guaranteed contraception” were never dreamed of. Now things are trickier.

Look at the Mormons. After the Civil War, the state governments began requiring couples who wished to marry to apply for a marriage license from the state. This was unprecedented in American history. It wasn’t long after that when the Mormon church officially announced that it had abandoned the policy of polygamy after a period of intense political and social outrage against them. I’m not advocating polygamy; on the contrary, if the Ogre took another wife I’d probably be jailed for a double homicide. But the fact remains that the Mormons certainly did not enjoy the same freedom of religion that the Constitution guaranteed for, say, mainline Protestants.

Same with the Muslims. Their religion calls for justice to be dispensed by Sharia law. In this country, the fight about Sharia law is playing itself out in the courts. But in the meantime, how do we uphold the freedom of religion that our Constitution guarantees to Muslims? It’s no argument at all, in my opinion, to claim that Islam isn’t really a religion. It is. It’s a well-established religion. A religion which requires that its members adhere to Sharia law. Also, it’s worth noting that Sharia law is not something that is implemented in the secular laws and which is applied to non-Muslims; Sharia law is the private, internal system of justice for Muslims. Right now, the courts are debating whether or not Sharia law should be recognized as a licit form of justice for Muslims.

I’m not a fan of Sharia law. I think it would be nearly disastrous to allow it to be recognized by US courts, because some Muslim women come to the US to seek escape from Sharia law and to take refuge here, where we acknowledge the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Yet our Constitution also protects freedom of religion, so what do we tell those who feel morally bound to Sharia law but are unable to practice it in the US? “Tough luck, your religious freedom isn’t the kind we’d like to protect?” I guess you could also say that this falls under the “separation of Church and state” banner, as the laws and justice fall under the authority of the state, but in the new health-care plan so does contraceptive coverage. Which leaves us Catholics out in the cold with the Muslims and the Mormons.

Maybe I’m fundamentally misunderstanding the Constitution and the first amendment. It’s possible. But even if I am, I can’t help but wonder how long our much-cherished freedom of religion can last as the government rapidly expands its hold in all areas of public and private life.

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