State must remain out of matters of the church
When James Madison, the “father of the Constitution” originally proposed that the Bill of Rights contain a clause to protect religious freedom, he saw it as more than simply a wall between church and state. His draft language included a strict ban on government infringement “in any manner, or on any pretence” on “the full and equal rights of conscience.”
The final language of the First Amendment and many ensuing court cases have somewhat fogged that original meaning, focusing instead on preventing organized religion from imposing its views on the body politic. As it should.
But if you ask Americans if they have a free-conscience right to practice their religion in any way they please, most would say for sure, Constitution or no. Don’t ask that in the White House though. The Obama administration has launched an unprecedented and stunning assault on freedom of conscience and religion.
Most spectacular is the Obama administration’s view that religious organizations have no greater right to hire or fire their own ministers than secular organizations have over their leaders. The Supreme Court, usually closely divided, found the administration’s argument so preposterous that it unanimously ruled it unconstitutional.
More recently, on Jan. 20, the Obama administration finalized regulations that force employers, including Catholic and other religious institutions, to provide insurance that covers birth control, without deductibles or co-pays, to its employees in hospitals, charitable organizations, social-service agencies and universities. Because prescription contraceptives, sterilization and abortifacients (chemicals that effectively kill a fertilized egg) violate their teachings and consciences, Catholic and other churches have loudly objected. Some declared they wouldn’t comply, setting up a major constitutional fight.
And they should object. America’s first immigrants sought refuge from governments that violated the religious beliefs and practices of the faithful and their church. Government should be able to trample those beliefs for only the most serious reasons, when no other alternative is available. It is nearly impossible to argue that employees — even if poor or employed by a Catholic facility — have no other alternative for obtaining and paying for contraception.
As if on cue, radical secularists showed up. Robyn Shepherd, an official with the American Civil Liberties Union, an organization that in this instance supports the gross violation of a civil liberty, called the Obama administration’s decision a victory over “political strong-arming” by Catholic bishops.
She wrote: “We said no when inns and restaurants wanted an exemption from anti-discrimination laws because they opposed integration as a matter of faith.”
Great rhetoric, but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Shepherd was talking about folks who provide public accommodations, such as restaurants, which is an entirely different thing from providing employee health insurance.
And, secularists argued, the Obama rule is needed because Catholics are intolerant of diversity. That’s a perfectly ludicrous argument for anyone who has seen the church’s universality as reflected in the exceedingly diverse faithful gathered from around the world to worship in St. Peter’s Square.
Radical secularists spit out their usual canard about how “Catholics seek to impose their morals on everyone else.” This is the goofiest of upside-down arguments. In truth, it should be clear to anyone but the blindly ideological and anti-Catholic bigots that secularists are imposing their beliefs on Catholics. As the Rev. Robert Barron, a Catholic priest, scholar and author, noted: “Who is using the law to impose morality on people? It ain’t the Catholic Church. It’s the secular state.”
Secularists will drag out plenty of diversionary arguments to the central issue, most typically: Many Catholic couples use artificial birth control, so it doesn’t matter if the government tells the church what to do about contraception. As if the government can decide what church teachings are valid and constitutionally protected by taking a poll. If church membership disagrees with the church’s beliefs, that’s a problem for the church and its members, not the government. Government already has enough problems of its own.
In his controversial appearance at the University of Notre Dame, President Barack Obama promised a sensible approach to matters of conscience. He now touts how he draws from his Christian faith when crafting public policy.
It’s all campaign rhetoric, and Catholics who fell for it by giving him a majority of their votes in 2008 have cause for regret and anger.
Dennis Byrne, a Chicago writer, blogs in the Barbershop at ChicagoNow.