Upside-down religious liberty in Illinois and Hungary

Upside-down religious liberty in Illinois and Hungary January 1, 2012

At Religion Dispatches, Peter Larrman offers a good run-down of the “Top 2011 Religion Stories That Weren’t.”

I want to draw your attention especially to No. 6:

6. Upside-Down Ideas about Religious Liberty

The dramatic new push for religious liberty exemptions for faith-connected providers of taxpayer-supported health services underscores the radical way in which understandings of religious liberty have changed in recent years. It’s not that the push for exemptions hasn’t made the news; it’s that no one is writing (at least in the MSM) about the radical nature of the shift. In the past, the social service arms of religious bodies understood that if they wanted public money they would need to honor public law regarding the disposition of the money: i.e., provide the full range of mandated services on a universal basis. We used to say to objectors, “If you don’t like the mandate, don’t take the money.”

Apparently such a commonsensical response is now insufficiently deferential to religion. More and more people seem willing to say that if a Catholic health care provider doesn’t “believe” in providing reproductive health care to women, that private belief can trump public law. This is a particularly thorny problem because of the many regional health care system mergers involving Catholic partners: there are now many places in the country where, if a dominant provider that toes the bishops’ line won’t provide the service, area women will be out of luck and deprived of benefits they are entitled to receive by law. Does anyone defer to them? Afraid not.

Laurie Goodstein shined a light on this upside-down inversion of religious liberty in The New York Times last week: “Bishops Say Rules on Gay Parents Limit Freedom of Religion.”

In Goodstein’s report we see Catholic official Thomas J. Paprocki invoking the intolerant antinomy:

“In the name of tolerance, we’re not being tolerated,” said Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield, Ill., a civil and canon lawyer who helped drive the church’s losing battle to retain its state contracts for foster care and adoption services.

That’s always the last refuge of the very, very stupid, who unfailingly imagine it to be clever. Anyone foolish enough to invoke the intolerant antinomy deserves to be hit in the face with a cream pie by the clown who pies all those, and only those, who do not pie themselves.

If you want to see what Fr. Paprocki’s upside-down notion of religious liberty looks like when put into practice, look at the constitutional and political turmoil now churning in Hungary, where the Constitutional Court recently struck down the Fidesz party’s proposed law privileging a handful of religious groups with official recognition:

The Constitutional Court findings … were a spirited response to Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government, which, backed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament, has been pushing through legislation at a chaotic pace.

The church law, which would have gone into effect Jan. 1, only included 14 Christian churches and Jewish congregations, forcing all others to seek recognition from two-thirds of Hungary’s lawmakers.

The good news is that Hungary’s Constitutional Court struck down this proposed upside-down religious liberty scheme. The bad news is that Orban’s Fidesz party is now busily trying to bulldoze the country’s courts and constitution, as Kim Lane Scheppele reported on Paul Krugman’s blog:

In a free and fair election last spring in Hungary, the center-right political party, Fidesz, got 53 percent of the vote. This translated into 68 percent of the seats in the parliament under Hungary’s current disproportionate election law. With this supermajority, Fidesz won the power to change the constitution. They have used this power in the most extreme way at every turn, amending the constitution ten times in their first year in office and then enacting a wholly new constitution that will take effect on January 1, 2012.

This constitutional activity has transformed the legal landscape to remove checks on the power of the government and put virtually all power into the hands of the current governing party for the foreseeable future.

… Under the new constitutional order, the judiciary has taken the largest hit. The Constitutional Court, which once had the responsibility to review nearly all laws for constitutionality, has been killed off in three ways.

That will enshrine a Paprockian form of upside-down religious liberty as the law of the land, as Scheppele explains:

The new constitution also accepts conservative Christian social doctrine as state policy, in a country where only 21 percent of the population attends any religious services at all. The fetus is protected from the moment of conception. Marriage is only legal if between a man and a woman. The constitution “recognize(s) the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood” and holds that “the family and the nation constitute the principal framework of our coexistence.” While these religious beliefs are hard-wired into the constitution, a new law on the status of religion cut the number of state-recognized churches to only 14, deregistering 348 other churches.

In the United States, the First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Those two clauses are complementary and necessary components each of the other. Any establishment or privileging of religion will inevitably and necessarily prohibit the free exercise of religion — not just for adherents of the unprivileged minority religions, but for adherents of the hegemonic, privileged sect as well.

People like Fr. Paprocki need to understand that the privileges they seek to establish for their sects will ultimately undermine their own freedom as well.

"I must have forgotten that. Thanks for the reminder."

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