A recent church bulletin came with a copy of the newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Kalamazoo enclosed. There were a couple of pieces in the newspaper that addressed the religious freedom issue here in America. As I read the columns in question I was struck by a couple of the arguments being made.
The first article was a column by Bishop Paul Bradley which claimed that our religious freedom is under attack and it’s up to us to defend our religious freedom rights from the attacks being made on them. Bishop Bradley’s argument came down to this:
“Federal and Supreme Courts are now put in the position of deciding what the law of the land shall be, rather than the majority of the citizens of this great Democracy. The judicial and executive branches of government are overtaking the legislative process that has made the United States the envy of every other country in the world.
The most blatant example of this government intrusion into our religious freedom is seen in the ‘HHS Mandate’ which mandates that contraceptive drugs, which include drugs that are abortifacients, must be provided regardless of how doing so infringes on one’s religious convictions. Does the ‘right’ to receive contraceptives trump the ‘right’ to religious freedom?”
First of all, ever since the Supreme Court ruling in Marbury v. Madison in the early 1800′s the federal courts have had the authority to decide what the “law of the land” is by ruling on the constitutionality of laws that have been passed by the legislative branch and signed into law by the executive. It doesn’t matter what the “majority of the citizens of this great Democracy” say, if the law in question is found to violate the Constitution the courts have the authority to strike down the law. It’s not a case of the courts being “…now put in the position of deciding what the law of the land shall be…” The courts have been in that position for the past 210 years or so.
Now, regarding the question of whether the right to contraception trumps the right of religious freedom, the fact is our rights are not unlimited. Our rights extend only to the point where our exercise of a particular right violates someone else’s rights or harms them in some way. We have a right to freedom of speech but that right is not unlimited. Doubt that? Try going into a crowded movie theater and yelling “FIRE” sometime. Your exercising your right to freedom of speech in that way creates a situation in which people could be hurt trying to get to safety. Or suppose you went out and told vicious lies about someone. You could soon be facing a libel lawsuit. Our right to freedom of speech is not unlimited.
We have a 4th Amendment right to privacy. Suppose you decide to throw a party, and keep it going with loud music and the consumption of alcoholic beverages until 3AM. Your right to be able to hold a party on your property is not unlimited. If your right to hold your party interferes with your neighbors’ right to be free of a disturbance, you can probably expect a visit from your friendly neighborhood police officer.
The right to religious freedom is no more important nor different from the right to freedom of speech or the right to privacy, or any of the other rights given to us by the Constitution. Depending on their interests some people may view one right as more important than all the others; but if you take away a constitutional right, any right, it diminishes America. If your exercise of your rights causes harm to another person or infringes on their rights, you’ve gone beyond the limits of your rights.
In the case of the HHS Mandate, the employer’s right to their religious convictions should not trump the rights of their employees to receive whatever contraceptives they and their doctor decide is best for them, because that infringes on the right of the employee to receive the same quality of health care that employees in other businesses are receiving. If you have to pay out of your own pocket for contraceptives that your employer refuses to pay for because of religious reasons, while employees in other businesses receive them free of cost, your quality of health care is not the same as those employees in other businesses. That’s a concrete, documentable harm; unlike the un-documentable nebulous claim of having your right to religious freedom harmed by having to pay for some form of birth control you object to.
And let us not forget that religious convictions are not always used for good. In the not too distant past of this country, when African Americans were fighting for their civil rights, some racists based their opposition on their belief that the Bible, through the story of Noah and his cursing of his son Ham, shows that the black people were the descendants of Ham and thus cursed by God, inferior to white people, and not deserving of equal rights. That was a religious conviction of those racists. Would the opponents of the HHS Mandate say that the religious freedom of those racists should have been upheld over the rights of the black people to be treated equally with whites in our society?
The other interesting article was a column by author and speaker Christopher Stefanick, which argued that opponents of marriage equality should share “the truth” about the “gay lifestyle” with love:
“Actually, we’re called to a different place. A middle ground where we might be hated by both the far right and the far left within our own Church as much as we’re hated by the people at OK Cupid. We’re called to teach the truth in love, remaining uncompromising and clear on moral issues and in defense of marriage, while at the same time offering a supportive community to people with same-sex attractions.”
I’ve got no problem with that conclusion. I’m all for civil discussions of issues. The problem I have with his conclusion is how he got there. Stefanick reached that conclusion by arguing that it’s the defenders of traditional marriage who are hated and persecuted by the “gay lobby” and its supporters:
“After Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, was forced to resign because he had donated money to support Prop 8 three years ago (it’s worth noting that 52 percent of Californians supported Prop 8), the dating website, OK Cupid, which spearheaded the attack on Eich, issued a statement that clarified their motives: ‘Those who seek to deny love….are our enemies, and we wish them nothing but failure.’
Since love is willing the good of another, desiring ‘nothing but failure’ for another is hate, by definition. And so, Eich was targeted for his ideas. The same was true for Elaine Huguenin, from New Mexico, who was fined $7,000 for refusing to photograph a gay wedding. There are more examples of this with every passing week. A baker in Lakewood, Colo., Jack Phillips, has no problems serving gay customers, but he refused to make a same sex ‘wedding’ cake because it violated his belief about marriage. The Colorado Civil Rights Commission has labeled this ‘illegal’ despite the fact that gay marriage is not even legal in Colorado, and ordered him to submit quarterly reports showing that he’s changed, and to train his employees to avoid discrimination (a.k.a. to support gay marriage) or he risks losing his business. A priest friend of mine in Vermont was recently asked to perform a marriage ceremony for a lesbian couple. They threatened to sue after he refused. There’s no longer any doubt that ‘gay marriage’ is an effective tool to dig up and bludgeon into submission all who disagree with the gay lifestyle, or force them out of society.”
Where to begin? As Paul Harvey used to say, “And now…the rest of the story.”
A major problem I have with the way Stefanick reached his conclusion is the fact that he portrays episodes such as the ones he cited as coming every week. Let’s take a look at the chronology of the cases he cited. The Eich controversy began on May 25 of this year and ended a couple of weeks later with Eich’s resignation on April 13. The Huguenin case happened in 2006. The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that her decision violated the state’s Human Rights Act, which bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. That ruling was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to take up her appeal. The $7,000 fine imposed on her was imposed by the New Mexico Human Rights Commission. The Jack Phillips case occurred in 2012. And yes, gay marriage may not have been legal in Colorado, but the state did have a civil rights law which prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. His decision to refuse to serve the gay couple was a violation of that state law. And, news stories I saw reported that Phillips was threatening to close his bakery rather than comply with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission sanctions.
In my research I could find only two other cases of business owners facing sanctions for refusing to provide services for the weddings of gay people on the basis of their religious beliefs, with both happening earlier this year. The owners of an Oregon bakery were fined for violating the Oregon Equality Act of 2007. And, there was the heavily publicized case of Washington florist Baronelle Stutzman, who faced sanctions after refusing to provide floral services for the wedding of a gay customer. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was outlawed in 2006, and in 2012 voters in Washington approved a ballot measure which legalized gay marriage. I could find no news accounts to substantiate the story Mr. Stefanick told about his priest friend in Vermont.
In his column, Bishop Bradley portrayed the religious freedom issue as being one where the will of the people is being usurped by the judicial and executive branches of the federal government. The reality is, the will of the people through the legislative process is being upheld. Those business owners are facing sanctions for refusing to provide their services at gay weddings because their refusal violates state laws which have either legalized gay marriage in that state or barred discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Allow me to remind you of the point I made earlier in this post. Our rights are not unlimited. Yes, we have a right to religious freedom. But if our exercising of that right harms someone or infringes on their rights we exceed the limits of our rights. In the cases cited by Mr. Stefanick, the rights of the gay couple to be treated like any other couple about to be married was violated because of the decision of the business owner to refuse to provide the requested services on the basis of their religious convictions about homosexuality, which violated existing state law.
I don’t know about you but I am not swayed by arguments that display a lack of knowledge about the subject being discussed, like Bishop Bradley’s column, or a twisted, distorted portrayal of the facts, as was the case in Stepanick’s column.
Why would the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in America raise this issue? I believe it may be an example of Exercising Authority 101. If you want to get the people on your side, raise a threat that results in people coming to you for leadership. And in raising that threat, it’s “facts be damned”. In this case, it’s that Big Bad, the federal government, that is supposedly voiding the will of the people and threatening our religious freedom. Don’t look behind the curtain that hides the fact that in the cases they raised, it was the will of the people that put in place the state laws that either legalized gay marriage or made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation–the laws that those business owners violated by refusing to provide their services for the weddings of gay couples.
Is religious freedom in this country being threatened? The answer is “Yes” if you believe that our right to religious freedom is unlimited; and that the federal government is trying to take that right away from Believers. But if you understand the truth about our rights, and that it’s state governments that have punished business owners who have violated state law by refusing to provide their service for weddings uniting gay couples on the basis of personal religious beliefs, I believe you’d have to conclude that the answer is “No’”.