Sandra Fluke, the Priest, and the Protestants

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

The government restricts freedom and forces religious believers to violate their conscience.

Do you hear all the talk about the “inevitability” of same-sex marriage? Are you watching the second round of “war on women” ads aimed at opponents of the HHS mandate? President Obama insists that even employers who are opposed to abortion and contraception must provide insurance offering these options to their workers — and employers of religious organizations (even at family-run, long-established, morally oriented businesses) will receive no relief.

We need to take a deep breath and consider how these radical changes might affect our freedom.

On a secular campus in a major city — George Washington University in Washington, D.C. — a priest at the Catholic campus-ministry outpost has come under fire for voicing Church teaching on abortion and marriage from the pulpit and, perhaps the greatest of sins, for believing the doctrine so fervently that he actually counsels students against what the Church teaches to be sinful activity.

The controversy isn’t about homosexuality. It isn’t about sex. It isn’t even about Catholicism. It’s about freedom. Are we free to believe, preach, and openly practice certain ideas that may run counter to the beliefs and practices of others? Are pastors free to inform consciences?

A Protestant community in Montana helps bring this issue into focus. The Big Sky Colony is a self-sustaining farming community with religious roots in the Protestant Reformation. They take a vow of poverty, share communal property, and support one another through the farm. The state government is insisting that they provide workers’-compensation insurance to the members of the community. Luke Goodrich, their lawyer at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, points out that providing this insurance would be a “a direct violation of Hutterite vows to renounce private property, to receive no compensation for their work, and to resolve all their disputes without asserting legal claims.” This is a crucial case, Goodrich says, because “if the government can force the Hutterites to violate 500-year-old religious vows, no religion is safe from the government’s whims.”

The Hutterites are not being bad citizens or asking for special treatment. They “are gladly subject to a host of government taxes and regulations,” Goodrich points out. “They pay taxes on all of their agricultural produce. They follow all regulations governing their dairy, hog, and grain production. They provide comprehensive, modern medical care to all of their members. The one requirement they object to, and the one that violates 500 years of religious practice, is a new law requiring them to provide workers’ compensation to their members.” Labor interests in the state have complained that the Hutterites’ exemption gives them a “competitive advantage.” Montana’s new law moves away from an exemption the Hutterites have received for 100 years; they want to continue the century-old tradition.

The Big Sky case is an educational opportunity, a reminder that the United States has long been not only an example of religious freedom as an essential element of a flourishing republic; we’ve also been a haven to people who are fleeing persecution. The Hutterites “have withstood five centuries of persecution, but laws like this one could easily end up driving them out of Montana,” Goodrich says. “Nobody should have to flee the United States in order to practice their religion.”

“When can the state force religious believers to violate their conscience?” is the question at the heart of the Hutterite case, Goodrich says. This is also the question at the heart of the Sandra Fluke controversy, which the media have portrayed as an issue about a single woman and her freedom to use contraception. Does the government have the right to force people who have moral objections to abortion-inducing drugs, contraception, and sterilization to pay for these procedures? No one is going to take away a woman’s access to contraception. But does, say, Cardinal Dolan have the right not to pay for it if this woman is working for him? Of course. Right?

That should be the easy question. Now: Do we have the right to insist that marriage, which we’ve long understood to be between a man and a woman, protect this definition as a matter of law? Or do we presume to remake the institution, thereby insisting that the man-and-woman connection is not necessary, that we were unenlightened to ever see it that way? And if we do that, are we condemning as bigots all those who still believe marriage is that ages-old, socially beneficent structure by which a man and a woman generally seek to raise children?

When we talk about tolerance and discrimination, we have to consider the full array of consequences. Once the law changes to mandate more tolerance of same-sex marriage, it’s hard to see how George Washington University can avoid discriminating against a priest who opposes the idea.

As we discuss these issues and soon process the aftermath of whatever the Supreme Court rules in two marriage cases, we ought to consider what is reasonable when it comes to government power and people with varying views and values. In our laws and cultural tradition, we are the stewards of a remarkable gift of religious liberty. We need to write laws that make distinctions and protect freedom. How can we make sure that we respect the rights of the priest, the cardinal, and the Hutterites, too?

 Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association. She is director of Catholic Voices USA.