Apologies to our non US members; this blog post is about American politics and religious freedom, but I believe non-US members will find it very important too. The First amendment to the US constitution guarantees freedom of religion in the sense that the government cannot have or promote an official religion nor prevent the practice of any religion, unless the practice of the religion conflicts with a superseding principle. For example, if your religion tells you to murder your adulterous wife, you're still not allowed to kill her and go free by claiming First Amendment rights. Also, if the practice of your religion interferes negatively with the public good, the public good takes precedence. To claim protection by the First Amendment, you have to show that a rule has been put in place exclusively to prevent you from practicing your religion. We had a big discussion on The Sunday Planet on June 16 about this subject, and about when someone can claim First Amendment protection. I came across this very good post in Religion Dispatches about "religious freedom" and how it can be used as a political weapon, and i thought it'd be of interest to you guys:
‘Religious Freedom’: Constitutional Principle or Electoral Politics? The author is Frances Kissling, a visiting scholar at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and former president of Catholics for a Free Choice.
Here are some excerpts, but do read the whole thing. It's very, very good.
On Thursday the Catholic bishops launched the Fortnight for Freedom, the grassroots phase of their campaign to gain official religious status for hospitals, universities, and social service agencies they neither control nor support financially. That status, as has been widely noted, would exempt these organizations from the administration’s requirement that an employer’s health insurance plan cover contraceptives, with no copay or other costs to the employee. But the longer-term goal is to legally shore up the contention that every organization and employer, religious or not, has the right to refuse to comply with any public policies they claim trouble their conscience.
Unless organizations like Catholic hospitals are allowed the same status as the religions themselves, they are likely to be treated under the law much as we treat individual religious persons. And the Supreme Court has already determined that when public policy aimed at everyone conflicts with individual religious beliefs, public policy is the higher good. Justice Scalia in his majority opinion in Employment Division v. Smith, 1990, noted: “We have never held that an individual’s religious beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the State is free to regulate.” [Note from Adriana: Sheesh, never thought I'd be agreeing with anything written by Scalia]
The CHA [Catholic Health Association] seems reluctant to wait for a court decision and instead want to push for a political one by convincing the president to expand the exemption now. It is in good position to press its case politically, as it has, as good lobbyists do, combined advocacy for its positions along with subtle political support for the president’s reelection. Whatever differences CHA may have with Obama on reproductive health policy, CHA is able to look at the big picture. Obama losing a second term would be a disaster for health care, poverty reduction, and all social services. And, unlike the bishops, CHA is more committed to the survival of the Affordable Care Act than to ensuring that it mirror Catholic positions.
Up to now, the administration has followed a strategy that is political, but respectful of the constitutional limits on religious freedom. It has correctly taken the position that public policies established to serve the common good require a clear and narrow definition of what is and what is not a religion. We do not just abandon the common god to unexamined claims that a public health or education provider is required by faith not to comply.
We are prepared to give an actual religion an almost free pass to assert what the religion teaches and requires, but not a hospital which holds in its hands the life and health of many of all faiths and no faith, and operates under the laws and regulations of the state. If such entities have any right to an exemption based on religion, those claims should be subject to strict regulatory scrutiny.
A good post and it is helpful to see more clearly the clash of 1st Amendment Rights and religions.
I liked it especially because it is written by a Catholic, although a very liberal Catholic. If all religious people were like the writer, we'd be in much less trouble in the world.
If a religious organization acts as an employer (tributes workers with a salary) it should be subject to the laws of the land like any other corporation or business that employs workers.
If churches can convince everyone (doctors, nurses, teachers...) to work for nothing, well good for them, they don't need to provide anything but bullshit to the suckers. But if they have to hire someone to do their deeds, then their religion means nothing in this material world.
The Catholic bishops have begun a two-week campaign leading up to July 4th with the central focus of removing contraceptive coverage from health insurance reform. Of course, the Supreme Court any minute now may end or modify the Affordable Care Act, which may make this debate moot.
The bishops are calling their campaign a “Fortnight for Freedom” and cloaking their objection to modern methods of contraception in a religious liberty argument. It is a classic example of those on the religious right who would restrict individual freedom to make private sexual choices co-opting language to confuse and gain supporters. It is reminiscent of the right’s coinage of “partial-birth abortion” for abortion procedures after 20 weeks and the use of the term “death panels” in health care debates.
As a religious leader and as a person of faith, I of course support religious freedom. So does the U.S. Constitution and so, I presume, do you. To me, and millions of people of faith, religious freedom means that all persons should be free to make their own personal decisions about their sexual and reproductive lives, including their decisions about when, whether, or if to have children. These decisions are optimally informed by their conscience, faith tradition, religious beliefs and families, but ultimately they are deeply personal decisions that individuals can and should have the freedom to make for themselves.
Thanks for the post, it was a good read. The First Amendment is referenced by many, but doesn't seem to be really understood.