Yes, I Worry About Religious Freedom

This past Sunday at mass, our priest told the story of a conversation he once had with a taxi driver. The man had noticed Father’s clothing and collar. “You’re a priest. I am a believer too.” Father expressed his approval and the man went on, “My faith is very dear to me, for it was handed down by blood.”

The man continued, “When my child tells me he doesn’t want to go to church, I tell him he will go, for his faith was won for him through the blood of his grandparents and great-grandparents. They paid with their lives, and here is my child in a place where he is free to worship. So he will go.”

Father went on to recount recent stories of Christians attacked, murdered – hacked to death, even – on account of their faith. Iraq, Pakistan, India, Nigeria – the examples go on and on. Yet, as Father noted, our eyes are dry. We look away. We do not mourn.

We should be feeling such atrocities acutely. Both for the sake of the people involved and because such crimes strike at the heart of what it means to be a free, thinking, feeling human. Our right to live in accord with our faith is as, if not more, fundamental to our freedom as our right to free speech. When I am able to speak freely, my mind is free. When I am able to worship freely, my heart and soul are free too.

When you look at the totality of the world’s population, true religious freedom is almost an anomaly. Billions of people live in countries where one is legally required to adhere to a certain faith, or permitted to belong only to select, approved sects, or, though legally free to worship as one chooses, restricted in practice by violence or intimidation.

Millions more live in Western societies that are increasingly, insidiously, hostile to religious practice. They look down on religious speech in public forums or prohibit religious garb in public spaces or compel religious people to act in conflict with their faith-informed ethical principles. They give notice that faith is only appropriate within the four walls of a church. And they maintain that a particular set of public values is somehow more valid and important than the individual’s right to determine his own way, in accord with his own mind, heart, and soul.

I’m no Chicken Little. I don’t think the United States is a modern-day Roman Empire teetering on the brink of collapse. I don’t think our government is two steps away from nailing “CONDEMNED” signs to all the church doors and requiring citizens to profess adherence to modern, secular liberalism.

But I do think we should be honest enough with ourselves to acknowledge that this thing can be messed up. This accident, this anomaly in human history – this brief period and narrow place in which we have been free to think and speak and pray and do as we like, without fear of legal or violent reprisal – this can, and probably will, pass away.

If our society can entertain the notion that climate change will eventually cause oceans to rise and landscapes to be altered, it should also consider the possibility that creeping infringements on our rights will eventually cause us to lose them altogether.

Because yes, that’s what we’re experiencing: creeping infringements on our rights. (Our real, most fundamental rights, that is – not our popularly-claimed, pseudo-rights to free contraception and abortion.) And yes, that’s what HHS did when it told Hobby Lobby’s owners that, despite their deeply-held and religiously-founded belief that human life is precious and worthy of protection, even from the moment of conception, they must pay for their employees to receive forms of “contraception” that can end real, precious, human lives – in the humble form of embryos – almost (not before) they have begun.

(Please note that Hobby Lobby already provides coverage for most types of contraceptives. Its owners have objected to four particular “contraceptive” methods because they can act not as true contraceptives – that is, by preventing conception – but rather as abortifacients, preventing an embryo from implanting in its mother’s uterus and thereby killing it.)

Many Americans seem to think that religious freedom is an issue for the history books. You’re given a blank stare if you express your concern for religious freedom abroad and you’re viewed as an alarmist or a zealot if you’re concerned that it’s under threat at home.

Nobody’s bombing churches here, right? The government doesn’t support a Church of America with our tax dollars and require all citizens to be its adherents, does it? So what is there to worry about?

I worry that we take too much for granted. That we vaguely recall a story about pilgrims… something, something… Church of England… something, something… and we think that concerns about religious freedom belong to another time.

I worry when so many of my friends and fellow Americans hear that the government aims to force people to do things that violate their deeply held religious beliefs and they… don’t care. Or worse, they fly to the defense of the government and demonize those targeted by it because the things that are to be done involve those most sacred of secular cows, contraception and abortion.

The fact is, there are slippery slopes all over the place. It’s quite fashionable to be concerned about government overreach insofar as it applies to email and phone records. But what about government overreach concerning what we believe and how our everyday lives reflect those beliefs?

I worry that we might not realize we’re on a slope until we’ve already slipped.


“Reason recognizes that religious freedom is a fundamental right of man, reflecting his highest dignity, that of seeking the truth and adhering to it, and recognizing it as an indispensable condition for realizing all his potential. Religious freedom is not simply freedom of thought or private worship. It is the freedom to live according to ethical principles, both privately and publicly, consequent to the truth one has found.” (Pope Francis, June 20, 2014)

14 thoughts on “Yes, I Worry About Religious Freedom

  1. This is so true. I think about this too. I was so excited about Hobby Lobby’s victory, but I was deeply saddened by the reaction of my liberal friends and by Hilary Clinton. Thank you for writing this!

    • I’m glad you liked it! I had to go look up Clinton’s reaction after your mention of it. Predictable, I guess. I’m so flummoxed by the suggestion that an employer imposes his religion on his employees by refusing to purchase something for them. To me, imposition implies an action – making someone do something they don’t want to do. If an employer required his employees to attend church or to pray, he would surely be imposing his religion on them. But how can one impose by refusing to do something?

    • You can impose on another person by refusing in this way: I am a non-smoker; I always have been and always will be. I HATE it when I am at an outdoor venue and people in front of me or around me are smoking and their smoke blows in my face and I am forced to breathe it in. They refuse to give the non-smokers around them the option to clean air to breathe because their right to smoke trumps my right to breathe clean air. Conversely, my insistence that smokers should be refused the opportunity to smoke around me, even outdoors, assumes that my right to clean air trumps their right to smoke. It’s a messy issue and certainly not one with any easy answers.

    • But in your example, Emily, the smokers are doing something — they’re smoking near you. They are imposing on you by their action. And if you stop them from smoking, you’re doing something. Again, action is involved. A better tie-in to the Hobby Lobby case would be if you refused to buy cigarettes for the smokers. In that case, you’re not imposing on them. You’re simply refusing to participate.

  2. For the purpose of discourse only, and because I am trully interested in your response… I would argue that the requirement to provide insurance that covers medical treatments determined as the best option by a patient and doctor does not violate religious beliefs. No one is saying that they have to use birth control they disagree with. Nor are they requiring them to have abortions. They can still hold their beliefs as strongly as they want and make their decisions based on those beliefs. However, if they choose to have employees, those employees should also be able to make decisions based on their own beliefs. Asking them to provide comprehensive health insurance doesn’t require them to do the things they are so against.

    • I’m glad you commented, Kelly. I certainly wouldn’t have posted this if I was uninterested in discourse!

      I think you’re arguing that the mandate does not violate religious beliefs because it doesn’t require people to undergo medical treatments they find objectionable. But the thing is, the mandate does require people to pay for medical treatments they find objectionable. Which is just as morally problematic.

      If I consider abortion to be wrong (which I do), and my girlfriend asks for my help in paying for one, I can’t do it. I would be morally culpable for the abortion, even though it’s not my own. My money would have made me part of the act.

      And so it is for the owners of Hobby Lobby. If they pay for coverage that includes potentially abortifacient drugs, well then, they’ve potentially paid for abortions. And they (understandably) find this unacceptable. It doesn’t matter that they’re not personally being forced to take the drugs (or undergo the procedures). If they pay for them, they’re morally culpable.

      Hobby Lobby’s employees remain able to make decisions based on their own beliefs. The company’s owners have not and can not order them to avoid the four particular contraceptive methods they find problematic. The owners just refuse to pay for them.

    • Health insurance is a part of the compensation for an employee’s service. The employee also receives cash from the employer for their service. If the employer’s health insurance plan covers abortions or “potentially abortifacient drugs”, an employee may elect to use their insurance compensation for that procedure or drug. If the employer’s health insurance plan does not cover those procedures or drugs, the employee may elect to use their cash compensation for that procedure or drug. Either way, the employer is providing the means for said procedures or drugs. So maybe Hobby Lobby should stop paying their employees to prevent them from doing any things they find objectionable?

    • But coverage for abortions or potentially abortifacient drugs can only pay for… abortions or potentially abortifacient drugs. If I pay for that coverage, I am putting money towards those purposes. No two ways about it; I’m responsible.

      Cash is entirely different. It can pay for anything under the sun. I have no control over what it is used for, and therefore I bear no responsibility for how it is used.

      To go back to my previous example: If my girlfriend seeks an abortion and asks me to help her pay for it, and if I do so, I would be morally culpable for the abortion. If my girlfriend asks me for money but doesn’t tell me how it will be used (and if I have no reason to think it would be put to such a purpose), then I’m not culpable.

      I can’t control what other people do. But I can control what I knowingly contribute to. Intent is important.

  3. I like your answer, but I’m curious: Change your girlfriend example to an employee who tells you she is saving for an abortion. Would you continue to employ or pay her?

    • I don’t think I can come up with a purely logic-driven, theoretical answer for you on this one. If I were truly in this position, empathetic Julie would be kicking in big time. I would probably be doing everything I could to get her to change her mind. Maybe I’d even offer to pay her more, so money wouldn’t drive her decision to have the abortion. I don’t know.

      I have a hard time imagining a woman telling her boss that she’s saving for an abortion and having that revelation come out of a place of smugness. I can only imagine it coming out of a place of vulnerability or desperation. I hope I would do whatever was in my power to offer the woman true support — not a quick fix with devastating long-term implications.

  4. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and asking myself a lot of questions, especially about the possible long-term ramifications of the SCOTUS decision, particularly as it relates to other faith traditions, and some of the things that business owners who are not Christian might deem morally reprehensible and/or against their deeply-held religious beliefs: things for which those same business owners might now appeal for their own companies citing this week’s decision as precedent. It worries me. A lot.
    You know, it’s interesting that companies (not the church) are not permitted in this country to discriminate against their employees/potential employees along the basis of race, age, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc. and yet they are now permitted to discriminate indirectly by by choosing what healthcare they will and will not permit their employees access to through their company’s health insurance plan. If companies are going to provide comprehensive healthcare to their employees, the companies ought not be allowed to select a la carte which services their healthcare coverage will provide. The same healthcare should be accessible to everyone everywhere regardless of who their employer is, which brings us back around to the larger issue of whether or not insurance should cover abortions and/or abortifacient birth-control at all, which is a whole other can of worms that I thought the Supreme Court had already ruled on…
    I would clarify that in the case of Hobby Lobby specifically, the scope of their new protections is narrow and specific, and that the drugs and procedure that they are refusing to pay for are, in many cases relatively easy to obtain at relatively little financial cost apart from insurance. For me, however, this isn’t really the issue.

    • Thanks for your comments, Emily! If I can break it down, here’s where I stand on the points you raised:

      (1) Certainly, I think this week’s ruling will have some far-reaching ramifications, despite the prevailing justices’ insistence that the ruling is narrow. But I’m okay with that. And not just because I anticipate agreeing with whatever other rulings might follow: I imagine I might like the consequences of some and dislike the consequences of others. Rather, I’m okay with far-reaching ramifications because I’m earnest in the importance I place on our right to freedom of religion. I think the most basic rights we have as humans are to our very lives and to our freedoms of speech, religion, and property. Without these freedoms, we’re unable to set our own courses in life. I don’t think one can be fully independent without them. So I think they’re worth defending, worth placing over and above other interests.

      The situation reminds me, again, of the balance between privacy rights and concerns about defense. Which do we treasure more — our privacy or our safety? Because it’s unlikely that we can have one without sacrificing the other, at least to some degree. I think we Americans tend to fall too easily into the trap of thinking we can have it all. We can’t. We live in a very real world where some things happen at the expense of other things, and where everything has a cost. So we have to choose our priorities. And my priority is freedom of religion.

      (2) I do not view Hobby Lobby’s actions as discriminatory. To me, discrimination lies on an entirely different plane. Discrimination is pointed at a person: “I won’t do x because you are y.” But Hobby Lobby didn’t devise their policy with the intent of harming a certain demographic. They’re targeting a thing – abortifacient drugs and procedures. It’s “I won’t do x because it is z.” Again, intent is important.

  5. Julie, I really do appreciate and admire your willingness to openly discuss incredibly controversial topics! These are my two cents:

    1) My main conclusion from the Hobby Lobby decision, which perhaps is not entirely germane to your discussion about religious liberty, is that employers should never be in the business of health insurance. They are two entirely separate enterprises, and the blending of these two interests should rightfully give people the same sort of pause that would be incurred by suggesting that your employer should have sway over your children’s education. It is not a constitutional right (education), similar to health care, but is largely held as a de facto public good. The systemic ramifications of saying that you have to pay for education but that an employee benefit would include education coverage would be controversial but not catastrophic. But the ramifications of saying that your educational coverage may not include the subject of evolution, predicated on the personal beliefs of your employer, would be vast. For-profit business owners should be allowed to weigh in on subjects that affect their bottom line, which may overlap with religious beliefs – working on Sundays, prayer breaks during the day, etc. But telling minimum-wage employees that their choices for healthcare outside of work, which do not in any way affect the financial profile of that for-profit corporation, are dependent on agreement from corporate employers seems unfair and unjust.

    2) In writing to a person who appreciates a slippery slope, I would invoke the same concern on the other side – that this has opened up the path to a huge swath of discrimination that may or may not have been intended by the Supreme Court. I recognize that the decision itself was explicitly limited to these four abortifacents, and that they specifically stated that it should not apply more broadly, but that doesn’t make sense. A logical argument, once approved, applies to all similar logical arguments. If I don’t agree with vaccines, I don’t need to pay for vaccines. If I don’t agree with blood transfusions, I don’t need to offer insurance coverage for them. If I believe that being gay is a personal choice that goes against my religious ideals, I don’t need to employ and pay people who are an affront to those values (e.g., Gordon College one day after Hobby Lobby decision). And if I was particularly manipulative and suggested that my personal religious belief system endorsed only aspirin as a medical cure to all ills, it is hard to argue on logical grounds that I could not offer “health insurance” made up of an unlimited aspirin policy.

    It is complicated, and it is nuanced, but I feel strongly that the push to uphold anti-discrimation laws should ring true to those concerned about limits on religious freedom.

    • Apparently, FDR wanted to have a single-payer system as part of the New Deal. However, employers persuaded him that by offering health insurance companies would have another way of attracting workers. Now, we are in a very different scenario in which many jobs are being contracted out to avoid paying for insurance. The Hobby Lobby case came close to saying what some of us have said for years: why not do a single payer system already? Otherwise, this case could be used as precedent for “closely held” companies to deny all sorts of treatments based on religious belief. The example that came to mind was the HPV vaccine, since I’ve heard many Christians voice opposition to it.

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