Religious Freedom: It’s not just Pakistan and China

Thirty-some years ago, I spent a fair amount of time on religious freedom issues: which meant, in those simpler days, trying to pry Lithuanian priests and nuns out of Perm Camp 36 and other GULAG islands. Had you told me in 1982 that one of my “clients,” the Jesuit Sigitas Tamkevicius, would be archbishop ofKaunasin a freeLithuaniain 2012, I would have thought you a bit optimistic. If you had also told me, back then, that there would eventually be serious religious freedom problems in theUnitedStates, I would have thought you a bit mad.

But you would have been right on both counts.

To be sure, Americans of conviction and conscience are not under the same threats that made a martyr of Shahbaz Bhatti inPakistana year ago. American believers in biblical religion and its moral teachings do not face the relentless pressure visitedupon Chinese Christians who refuse to concede that the Church is a subdivision of the state. But religious freedom is, nonetheless, under assault in theseUnited  States. The assault is both cultural and legal. It is shameful that the present administration underwrites the former while being a major actor in the latter.

I try to unravel some of the cultural aspects of the problem—the attempt to erect an empty “shrine” at the heart of western democracy—in the Spring 2012 issue of National Affairs, in an article whose title is taken from the Book of Daniel: “The Handwriting on the Wall.” As for the administration’s legal assault on religious freedom, consider the following:

1) The recent HHS mandate—which requires that all employers (including religious institutions with moral objections and private-sector employers with religiously-informed moral objections) facilitate the provision of contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortifacient drugs like Plan B and Ella to their employees—is an effort to bend religious convictions to the government’s will. Under the mandate, the federal government will impose its understanding of “preventive health care” on all of American society. And if that tramples the right of religious freedom enshrined in the First Amendment and the provisions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, then too bad—or, as the administration seems to believe, all the better. The administration is likely to lose this battle, legally, but the underlying intent to erode religious freedom is all too clear.

2) The gross overreach of the HHS mandate is of a piece with other administration policies, such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s remarkable claim that the First Amendment’s religion clauses offer no protection against EEOC’s reach into the hiring practices of religious institutions. In January, the Supreme Court batted that claim down, 9-0; thus the constitutional firewall held. But the administration’s intent to break it down was, again, unmistakable.

3) The Justice Department has refused to do its constitutional duty and defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act [DOMA] in the federal courts. Why? One can reasonably conclude that the refusal to do what the law requires the administration to do is based on the administration’s agreement with the claim of DOMA’s critics: that genuine support of traditional marriage (as distinguished from the president’s ever-meeker lip service to it) is irrational bigotry—a slander the administration seems willing to see applied to American citizens who once marched on Washington to support civil rights and thus make the election of an African-American president possible.

4) Then there is the State Department, which now refers to “freedom of worship” rather than “religious freedom” in discussingU.S. international human rights policy.  This dumbing-down is bad enough in its abandonment of men and women of conscience around the world. But it now seems to have seeped back into domestic policy: for aren’t the cases cited above efforts by the administration to hollow out religious freedom and reduce it to a privacy right that accommodates certain weekend recreational activities?

These questions should be at the center of the conversation between now and Election Day.

George Weigel


George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the author, most recently, of The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II⎯The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy.

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  • Alecto

    From the announcement that the Administration was attempting to pass “comprehensive” health legislation, many of us began fighting, calling, emailing, and protesting.   Fighting with our overlords, the Washington Deceivers in their marble and granite palaces and fighting with our bishops (also in their marble and granite palaces) who betrayed us by initially supporting this assault on the Constitution and our God-given liberty.  Supporting it right up until it became obvious they had been duped and that abortion was going to be part of the deal. 
    It is difficult, if not impossible, to forgive them, then, for their sin of idiocy.  Ignorance.  Gullibility.  Couldn’t they have at least listened to people like me before they lambasted us back in March 2010 as we gathered to protest this abomination, this abortion of constitutional governance? 
    I have read and heard nothing since then to convince me they are other than they were:  conceited and unrepentant promoters not of wisdom or understanding or even church teaching, but their own power and influence.  After all, this really draws a line in the sand over government contracts and funding.  How sad then, that they have chosen not to renounce all government or taxpayer funds to continue “God’s work” opting to fund Catholic charities solely with private funds.  All rights are individual, not institutional.  They protect and were always intended to protect individuals from the power of the federal government.  For decades the Catholic hierarchy has been in league with the federal government both by promoting public policies it viewed as furthering Catholic social teaching (whatever that is) and going after federal contracts as a way of making up for the growing lack of financial support from Catholics like me who are sick and tired of contributing our hard-earned money only to see it directed to politically questionable causes like ACORN and illegal alien amnesty. 
    Which brings us to the current situation.  The cultural problem you reference was in part created by the bishops who failed in every respect to pass on the Catholic faith and to criticize people like my parents who tried to instill authentic Catholic teaching in their families.  I really do not need some phony hypocrite in a red hat and cape now lecturing me about my duty as a Catholic.  I know what it is and I’ve been fulfilling it for decades.  What I need is for the red-caped phony to stop criticizing me for practicing my authentic Catholic faith and to begin practicing it himself!