What Are We Doing Here?
Misunderstanding freedom on both sides of the Atlantic.


Kathryn Jean Lopez

A former British Airways worker was just told by a European human-rights court that she does, in fact, have the right to wear a cross around her neck while in uniform. Deo gratias. But the human-rights court is, at best, a two-edged sword. Its decision comes as Brits are faced with same-sex-marriage legislation that, if passed, would cause difficulties for traditional Christians who refuse to bless the redefinition. Human-rights lawyers have already threatened to turn to the European court to challenge the exemptions that the British government has carved out for religious organization and ministers.


The British Airways decision came down on “Religious Freedom Day” on our side of the pond. “Foremost among the rights Americans hold sacred is the freedom to worship as we choose,” proclaimed the White House. This from the same administration, of course, that has been arguing in federal court that if I am a person who believes as a matter of conscience that abortion is wrong and I choose to run a business, I do not have the freedom to opt out of providing medical insurance that covers abortion-inducing drugs for my employees. According to the Obama administration, I give up my religious liberty once I make the choice to provide jobs to fellow Americans. For that matter, the administration still has contrived no recourse for church-run schools and faith-based hospitals and social-service entities that object to that same “preventive-services” mandate.

Notice the use of the word “worship.” The White House leans toward the w-word and it should, because that is its posture. It seems to believe that religious liberty refers only to what we do in our houses of worship, and not to how we seek to live our lives in accordance with our religious beliefs. That’s the argument the Department of Justice makes in court against business owners who are suing for relief from the HHS mandate, which promises to impose fines of $100 a day per employee. The president did not, of course, mention the mandate in the proclamation.

The narrow understanding of religious freedom made manifest in the mandate ought to give us pause. It’s not an anomaly. It’s born out of conventional misunderstandings about words, including “freedom” itself, but also “equality” and “tolerance.” “There is no doubt that religious liberty is under serious threat in Britain, particularly for Christians,” says Paul Coleman, a lawyer with Alliance Defending Freedom, a group involved with cases before the European human-rights court. “In the language of ‘equality,’ ‘diversity,’ and ‘tolerance,’ secularists have found a way to sideline and marginalize Christianity, successfully framing the moral beliefs of Christians as ‘intolerant” or ‘discriminatory’ and unworthy of protection. Unless a true balance is found, where Christians can be accommodated in the public square and not shut out, we will see many more cases like the four before the ECHR in the headlines,” he tells me.

Three of the four cases Coleman alludes to were wins for a narrowing view of freedom there. A registrar was told she didn’t have the right to refuse to perform same-sex civil-union ceremonies and a counselor was told he didn’t have the right to opt out of working with same-sex couples. Can’t most of us agree that neither request from an employee — to work on a different case — is extreme or necessarily hateful, but instead a matter of retaining a healthy respect for conscience?