The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has announced a “Fortnight of Freedom” to last from June 21 to July 4. The event, based on the presupposition that religious freedom is endangered in this country, is planned as a very visible demonstration. The “Fortnight” not only ends with the celebration of the major patriotic holiday, but includes the feast day of John Fisher and Thomas More, both martyrs to the Roman Catholic faith, executed for treason for refusing to accept King Henry VIII as head of the Church of England. They were certainly killed for their loyalty to the faith, but at least in the case of one of them the association with religious freedom is rather shaky: I don’t know about Fisher, but More, in his earlier days as a high official in the government, ordered the burning of heretics on the stake. The planned event will have a closing mass, on July 4, at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception; the celebrant is to be Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Archbishop of Washington. In other words, the bishops are deploying massive symbolic artillery. Is the presupposition of the event plausible? Is there a crisis of religious freedom in this country?
It seems to me that, empirically speaking, the answer is no. Compared to a depressingly long list of other countries, the United States is a veritable paradise of religious freedom. A few hours ago, to clear my mind for the writing of this post, I read the 2012 report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, a rather reliable source in this matter; I am still depressed. Many of the cases mentioned in the report not only involve physical violence but actual killings of putative infidels and heretics, be it by legally prescribed executions or by mob lynchings tolerated by the authorities.
One may also question the bishops’ level of alarm by looking at the causes of their concern. The immediate trigger of course has been the mandate under the Obama health law which would force Catholic institutions (such as social services, hospitals and schools) to provide contraception through the health insurance plans of their employees. The mandate excluded institutions directly engaged in exclusively religious activities (such as parish churches or monasteries—or, I guess, the bishops’ own offices). The administration was evidently surprised by the outcry provoked by the mandate (its surprise, I think, shows how oblivious it is of the religious realities of the country). It quickly came out with a compromise: The institutions would not have to pay, but the insurance companies would have to pick up the cost. The offered compromise at first seemed reasonable (initially it seemed so to me), but it was quickly rejected by the bishops, on several convincing grounds. The most important was the arrogation by the federal government to decide what was and what was not “religious”—a rather clear violation of the free exercise clause in the first amendment to the constitution.
A more slow-moving trigger has been the issue of same-sex marriage, strongly rejected by the Catholic Church, though an immediate occasion was President Obama’s moving from an “evolution” of his thinking about same-sex marriage to a direct endorsement in a recent interview. In terms of public opinion the bishops are on somewhat stronger ground on this issue: Around 50% of Americans still oppose same-sex marriage (although this figure has been steadily declining). Also, unlike on the issue of contraception, there has been strong Evangelical support for the Catholic position. On contraception, on the other hand, the overwhelming majority of Americans do not agree with the Catholic position; what is more, a very similar majority of American Catholics practice contraception (often, I would think, without serious opposition from their priests). Perhaps one should mention that no Catholic doctor has been jailed for refusing to prescribe contraception, neither has any Catholic priest for refusing to conduct same-sex weddings.
[Full disclosure: I find the Catholic teaching on contraception very implausible indeed. An analogy would be a teaching that one must not seek medical help upon falling ill, because one should be open to the possibility that the suffering may be an occasion for spiritual growth. I think that gays and lesbians have very real grievances in terms of legal discrimination, but I would prefer the government to go out completely from the business of defining, one way or the other, the meaning of marriage—a complex issue that I discussed in an earlier post.]
It will be clear from the above that I am not in tune with the vehemence of the bishops’ campaign. Although there continue to be disputes over the balance between the free-exercise and no-establishment clauses in the first amendment, there are more painstaking protections of religious freedom in the United States than in just about any other country in the world. Nevertheless, the bishops are right that both issues raise questions about religious freedom. The fact that things are enormously worse in Iran or Saudi Arabia is beside the point: American standards should be enormously better than those prevailing in those two countries. On the fight over the insurance mandate, the bishops are right in saying that contraception is not the issue here, but rather the government’s interfering in how Catholics understand and practice their faith (praying in church a religious act/nursing the sick a secular act). In the matter of same-sex marriage, the bishops are also right in separating the legal status of such a practice from the freedom of speech and symbolic action of those who oppose the practice. In both disputes, the core question is about government overreach—an important enough issue to justify what will probably be a long trek through the federal courts to the Supreme Court.
Since the second issue, same-sex marriage/free speech of opponents, is somewhat more complex than the one about insurance coverage for contraception, some examples of why it involves religious freedom may be useful. Religion News Service, on June 6, 2012, carried a story about an Evangelical wedding photographer in New Mexico who refused to take a picture of a lesbian “commitment ceremony”. State law has not legalized same-sex marriage, but does prohibit discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation in places of public accommodation. The couple sued the photographer on the basis of the latter law. The suit was upheld in court; it is being appealed. In an earlier interesting case, the Associated Press, on July 9, 2010, reported on an adjunct professor in the religious studies department of the University of Illinois. In a course on Catholicism he not only explained the Catholic position on homosexuality (such explanations were what the course was all about ), but indicated that he agreed with it. He was denounced for this in an anonymous email sent by a student, upon which he was fired for violating a university rule on “hate speech”. Upon a review of the matter the professor was reinstated and apparently there was no litigation. But one can be sure that the slippery concept of “hate speech” will lead to a lot of litigation. I am told by a lawyer I know to be carefully following this issue, that the Supreme Court, which has been fierce in its defense of freedom of speech, usually decides on that ground rather than on the ground of religious freedom. This may be regrettable for some reasons (religious freedom should be looked at as sui generis), but in cases like the one in Illinois the difference hardly matters empirically.
Our northern neighbors, ever eager to show how much more progressive they are than the United States, have gone farther in their application of “hate speech” law. On June 11, 2012, National Review (which is not exactly neutral in matters of homosexuality, but usually correct on facts) carried a bevy of Canadian horror stories. Thus the Roman Catholic archbishop of Calgary was threatened with a lawsuit charging discrimination because he outlined Catholic teaching on marriage in a letter to churches in his diocese. The archdiocese, to avoid costly litigation, decided to settle. (Apparently Canadian law is as tolerant as American law of this type of legalized extortion.) A provincial court in Saskatchewan ruled that state officials could be fired for refusing to marry same-sex couples in a civil marriage ceremony. I did not try to find out where this case now stands. There is now a campaign by Canadian “LGBT” advocates to remove tax exemption from churches that refuse to consecrate same-sex marriages. Cases such as this indicate that such advocates are no longer focused on defending the rights of homosexuals (a cause which, by the way, I for one have passionately endorsed for many years), but are intent on forcing everyone else to solemnly legitimate their identity ideology.
Beyond the legal matter of cases that require new clarifications of the first amendment, there is a broader issue here—that of an increasingly intolerant culture of secularism, trying to use the state to enforce its values—itself part of the even broader issue of government over-reach. The Roman Catholic Church has been a major target of this secularist agenda, because its sexual ethics has been repugnant to many people (the ever widening scandal of pedophile priests has clearly fed the repugnance). There is a very real issue of religious freedom here—a good reason to support the Catholic bishops, even if one completely disagrees with their views on issues south of the navel.