Can Religious Freedom Be Saved?
Rolling back the Obama administration’s attack on freedom of conscience

Protesters gather outside the Health & Human Services building in Washington, D.C., March 23, 2012.



Religious liberty knows no party. It is not the possession of Republicans or Democrats, any more than religion itself is. People of faith — people who for the best of reasons should be alert to the necessity of religious freedom — can be found on every side of every issue: fiscal policy, crime and punishment, immigration, our foreign wars, even the hotly contested “social issues” of abortion and same-sex marriage.

But liberty — freedom of every kind, including religious freedom — is always threatened whenever government becomes more powerful in directing the course of our lives. And when people of faith hold the reins of an increasingly powerful government, they are no more immune to its temptations and corruptions than anyone else.

So when President Obama asks how he, a religious man himself, can be accused of a kind of “war” on religious freedom, I don’t doubt he is mystified by the accusation. But that does not mean it is an unjust one. The president is the architect of the greatest increase in governmental power over the lives of individual Americans since the New Deal: the “Affordable Care Act,” or Obamacare, signed into law two years ago. That’s the law that enabled HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to decree that, except for the most narrowly defined religious employers, every employer in the country would have to pay for insurance that covers free contraception, abortifacients, and sterilization procedures. That includes religious schools, colleges, hospitals, charities, and social-service agencies. And the administration’s so-called “accommodation” is so far just a promise to talk some more about this after the November election — as if they’ll be interested if they are victorious then.

The president and the secretary, because they see no merit in anyone’s moral opposition to contraception, sterilization, or abortion, likewise seem to have no respect for anyone’s claim that religious liberty is at stake in this matter. Contraception and access to abortion are great public goods to Obama and Sebelius. For the sake of such great public goods, coercive mandates on American citizens are, to them, the most natural course of action. Since they cannot conceive of moral or religious opposition to these alleged goods on the part of any rational person, there is no principled reason to make room for claims of religious freedom. Contraception and abortion are non-negotiable goods for them. Other people’s religious freedom? That’s negotiable. Or at least the definition of “religious institution” is, so it seems.

Some people on our side of the issue say that the Obama administration’s rhetorical strategy, of portraying its opponents as waging a “war on women,” is deeply cynical. I disagree. I think they are utterly sincere in this belief, given their own profound commitment to a certain view of what women need, want, and deserve. It’s a badly mistaken view, but they sincerely believe it. And in matters like this, sincerity is much more dangerous than cynicism.

Our Founders knew this. They knew that power, and a sincere conviction of one’s own rightness, can make for a deadly cocktail. That’s why they protected religious freedom and religious conscience in the Constitution. The freedom to act on one’s conscience, a freedom enjoyed by individuals, churches, institutions, and employers and employees of every kind, “religious” or not, means the right to say “no” to political power when it commands you to do what you believe you can’t morally do.

Religious conscience is now under threat by the federal government to a degree unseen for many years. But threats like this often have a salutary effect: the lessons learned in defeating them. The other side has the White House and the media. We have the truth, the Constitution, the law, and the voting booth. I’d say it’s a fair fight!

— Matthew J. Franck is director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute.

The United States has endured and persevered through numerous attacks on religious freedom, some quite targeted and quite vicious. Let’s not forget, for example, the anti-Mormon “extermination order” of 1838 or the less violent but still vicious anti-Catholic Blaine Amendments of the late 19th century. The present controversy is less about subordinating one religion to others than it is about subordinating all religious liberty to sexual liberty.

The sexual revolution has always clashed with orthodox religious faith. After all, Judeo-Christian tradition limits sexual activity to the bounds of marriage. Yet we’ve long since passed the point where traditional religions could impose their will through the force of law. Contraceptives are legal everywhere, and even sodomy has even been elevated to the status of a constitutional right.

One would think that in these legal changes one would find the makings of an uneasy truce. The revolutionaries have the right to behave as they desire, while the religious have the right to believe (and act) as their consciences dictate. Yet as is often the case, revolutionaries won’t settle for mere victory when domination is in their grasp.

With the Obama HHS mandate, the federal government is creating the mirror image of the 1940s, with religious entities now coerced into participating in and even funding the sexual revolution. It’s not enough that men and women have the right to purchase contraceptives, now they have a right to get them for free.

But to create such a right, one must decisively and finally subordinate religious freedom to something else, an unwritten construct of a radical and debased culture that feels entitled to pleasure without obligation, cost, or consequence.

I suppose that the language of the Bill of Rights should now carry a disclaimer: “Subject to the sexual needs of the ruling class.”

— David French is a senior counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice and co-founder of Evangelicals for Mitt.


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