How religious liberty could become a second-class right


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ABSTRACTAmerica Magazine - First of Freedoms? Skip to Content   Current Issue Archives Subscriptions Advertising About Us Contact Us Support Us Follow us Login/Register Text Size:  A   A   |  Print  |  Email  |  First of Freedoms? How religious liberty could become a second-class right Mary Ann Glendon | MARCH 5, 2012 U ntil recently the status of religious liberty as one of the most fundamental rights of Americans has seldom been seriously challenged. Despite lively controversy about its precise scope and limits, citizens of all faiths have long taken for granted the unique model of religious freedom that has enabled this nation’s diverse religions to flourish and to coexist in relative harmony. Recent legal and political developments, however, suggest that the first freedom in our First Amendment may be en route to becoming a lesser right—one that can be easily overridden by other rights, claims and interests. This past September, alarm at that prospect prompted the U.S. Catholic bishops to establish a special committee “to help keep bishops alerted to present and ongoing threats to religious liberty at home and abroad and also to help them teach, communicate and mobilize their people in defense of religious liberty.” When the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty was launched, its chairman, Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., stressed concerns about the increasing erosion of conscience protection for individuals and institutions. At the federal level, the top-rated program through which the U.S.C.C.B.’s Migration and Refugee Services agency helps sexual trafficking victims has recently lost its funding for refusing to provide “the full range of reproductive services” including sterilization, abortion and contraception. The U.S. Agency for International Development has required its providers—such as Catholic Relief Services—to include contraception in their H.I.V. prevention and international relief programs, even if that violates the recipients’ moral commitments. And regulations issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will require most private health insurers to cover sterilization, contraception and drugs that induce abortion. The legal picture was brightened somewhat by the Supreme Court’s decision in January in the case Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which unanimously confirmed the right of churches to select their own ministers and religious leaders without governmental interference. But religious individuals and institutions continue to face assaults on their constitutional rights from several directions. On Jan. 20, H.H.S. announced that it would not expand its exemption for employers who have religious objections to providing health insurance coverage for sterilization, contraception and abortifacients, despite pleas from leaders of many faiths to do so. The announcement came just one day after Pope Benedict XVI had warned, in an address to U.S. bishops, of “grave threats” to conscience rights and “the church’s public moral witness.” In 2010 a closely divided Supreme Court gave a green light to public universities that refuse to recognize student religious groups, such as the Christian Legal Society, that restrict membership to persons who support the group’s beliefs. There are countless stories like that of Julea Ward, a Christian student at Eastern Michigan University who is currently contesting her expulsion from the school’s graduate counseling program for refusing to affirm that homosexual behavior is morally acceptable. Conflicts have become particularly intense where religious groups that uphold traditional marriage are concerned. It does not help the churches’ efforts to uphold their teachings in this area that the U.S. Justice Department, in abdicating its responsibility to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, has attributed support for traditional marriage to bigotry. Emboldened by recent developments, militant secularists are claiming that religious freedom is an unnecessary right. Some maintain that religious people and groups already have all the protection they need or deserve from antidiscrimination laws and constitutional safeguards for freedom of expression and association. Others, more insidiously, treat religious liberty as part of a generic liberty right rather than a distinctive freedom that merits special exemptions and accommodations. Marginalizing Religion More is at stake in these challenges than the mission of all churches, including the Catholic Church, to provide vital social services like health care and education. The ability of religious persons and groups to participate in public deliberation about the conditions under which they live, work and raise their children is also at risk. In announcing the formation of the new committee, Card.......