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?
Two dissenting judges said as much in the case of the registrar: She deserved to keep her job, they held, because no one was turned away on account of her exercise of conscience and that there were others there who could do the job. But the narrowing infects even the dissenters. Her claim is a light one, they contend, because she is not operating in a clearly religious context. If a priest were the one refusing, the objection would be a much clearer case, they offered.
Or would it? We are on the edge of a moral cliff and in danger of falling off in terms of the freedom we deem worth protecting.
Here in the United States, public discourse is confused about the HHS mandate because it involves the most intimate of issues and because it has been the subject of a disingenuous campaign that has obscured the fundamental conscience concern, the unprecedented nature of the trampling on the freedom of some and how that’s important for all. But the situation in Britain could and should be a cautionary tale for us. A poll of self-identified gays, lesbians, and bisexuals there last year commissioned by Catholic Voices found that the majority of those who supported same-sex marriage believe such marriages should be able to take place in church. True, a majority among those said they would not likely make use of the right, but they still considered it a matter of “true equality.” Would this come to pass, civil law would be defining the terms of religious worship, as well as other questions of religious freedom, even within the walls of a church. It’s actually not a far cry from some of the considerations before courts today on both sides of the Atlantic.
“Religious freedom in Britain is in an extremely weak position,” said Paul Diamond, one of the lawyers involved in the religious-freedom cases heard in Strasbourg. He attributes the situation to “a combination of aggressive secularism . . . and significant demographic changes.” But, despite a still fairly recent globally celebrated royal church wedding in high Christian form, the British are immersed in a “progressive” campaign toward pushing Judaeo-Christian values from the public square. It’s not just a British thing, he emphasizes, but a campaign throughout the West, and in fact Brits, he says, are becoming “the experts at a new form of ‘rear guard’ tactic to reverse an oppressive situation.”
The “wake-up call” for Diamond was a 2001 case by which he was “personally horrified,” in which an elderly street preacher with a placard that read “Jesus Gives Peace, Jesus is Alive, Stop Immorality, Stop Homosexuality, Stop Lesbianism, Jesus is Lord” was attacked by a crowd and subsequently arrested and fined for incitement. This is not what civilized people do — although it’s true that Christians are by no means the only ones punished for “offensive speech.”
These misunderstandings of words like “tolerance” and “equality” are not new, but we slouch closer toward tyranny with each one — especially as they become more official and coercive. Diamond is hopeful for Americans, citing our “robust” commitment to that which has made us exceptional. We have miles to go, however, if we are going to meet his admiring expectations.
— 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 a director of Catholic Voices USA.