Honoring Faith in the Public Square
Honoring Faith in the Public Square
During the past year, The Obama administration has been subjected to strenuous criticism for its perceived hostility, or at best cavalier indifference, to the cause of religious freedom in the United States.
First there was the Supreme Court's decision in the Hosanna-Tabor case. The Obama administration's lawyers sought to deny church-run schools a longstanding exemption from antidiscrimination laws, meant to safeguard religious schools' freedom to hire and fire employees according to their own faith-based criteria. The Court delivered a stinging and unanimous rebuke, reaffirming the exemption.
Then, more famously, came the still-simmering case of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate requiring all employers, including church-run schools, hospitals, and charities, to provide their employees with health-insurance plans covering contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilization procedures.
Religious leaders quickly realized that this requirement would necessitate the violation of core moral teachings, particularly for the Roman Catholic Church. Opposition was swift and unequivocal, taking the form of a remarkably ecumenical coalition. The often fractious Catholic bishops achieved an unprecedented degree of unity. They were joined soon enough by a broad array of evangelical leaders, such as the president of Wheaton College, as well as eminent figures from across the full spectrum of American religious communities: Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Sikhs, and so on. Everywhere the rallying cry was directed, not to the support of specific Catholic doctrines, but to the general defense of religious freedom.
Secular supporters of the administration seemed both annoyed and mystified by the protests. How, wondered Ed Kilgore, writing in Washington Monthly, did "religious freedom" ever come to mean "the right to have one's particular religious views explicitly reflected in public policy"? What gives Catholic bishops the right to "contend they should be able to operate a wide range of quasi-public services and also enjoy the use of public subsidies, while refusing to comply with laws and regulations that contradict their religious or moral teachings"? Were they not in fact seeking "a broad zone of immunity from laws they choose to regard as offensive"? Were they not seeking "special privileges"?
Notwithstanding the combative tone, these are important questions, which deserve a thoughtful and respectful response. Religious believers need to prepare themselves to hear such questions asked again and again in the years to come, and contemplate how they will answer them. For beneath the controversy about religious liberty is a deeper controversy about the nature and status of religion itself in the American legal and political order.
That controversy is nothing new, of course. It runs through much of American history, taking on different guises and embracing different antagonists and issues at different times. But it has achieved a unique importance and potency at this historical moment, when we are more intent than ever upon upholding the principle of neutrality in all things. What is so special about religion, that it should receive any "special privileges"? Why should we regard a church or other religious association differently than we regard any other social club or cultural organization? Why treat the rights and expressive liberties of religious adherents any differently than we would treat those of other individuals?