Religious Freedom is a Two Way Street

by on February 25, 2012 · 20 comments

in Civil Rights, Politics, Popular

Limiting the availability of contraception to women or the denial of civil rights to gays and lesbians on the basis of religious objections is itself a denial of religious freedom.  How Conservatives misunderstand the concept of religious liberty.

I was born a Jew.  Which really doesn’t mean a whole heck of a lot since I’ve never been the religious type.  Ever.  Yeah, sure I was Bar Mitzvahed and did the whole Sunday school thing as a kid.  But religion was never my thing.  It just never appealed to me.  My senior year in high school, as a member of my high school football team, I was furious with my parents for making me attend High Holiday services instead of going to school:  The school was having a pep rally at lunch for our football game that night, and some of my teammates were going to perform a skit dressed as cheerleaders (imagine a 250lb Korean offensive lineman in a cheerleader skirt!).  And I had to miss it.  Even worse, I had to miss the game which we won in dramatic fashion on a last second Hail Mary touchdown pass, the most exciting game and finish of my entire, brief football career, which I had to read about in the newspaper the next morning.

Religion has simply never been an important or valued part of my life.  It just never struck a chord with me.  To me Judaism is much more of a culture than it is a religion; a culture with which I have only a loose relationship.  Since I graduated from high school (which was a long time ago), you can probably count the number of times I’ve set foot in a synagogue on two hands.  And that doesn’t include the several times I’ve peered into the largely symbolic synagogue in Old Town San Diego just out of curiosity—the notion of a synagogue in 19th century San Diego seems so odd for some reason.

This also means that I am not a Christian of any kind:  Not a Catholic, Protestant, Methodist, Baptist………I am not “born again” and I never will be.  I am also not a Muslim, and have no desire to convert to Islam.  It is my personal view that religion tends to cause at least as many problems as it actually solves.

But I also recognize that organized religion plays a very prominent role in the lives of many, many people.  For many, religion provides a sense of purpose, belonging, and for some it brings a sense of peace.  There are those who have been rescued from the deepest depths of despair by a newfound or renewed faith in God.  And I respect that.  Good for them.

The problem I have—particularly in today’s political environment—is with the interpretation of the phrase “religious liberty” and the way it is used by Conservatives.  Apparently Democrats and Republicans have very different interpretations of what “religious liberty” or “religious freedom” actually means.

When we look at what’s going on in relation to the Republican presidential primaries and debates and the policies they are pushing—especially in the case of Rick Santorum—they’re talking about imposing a set of values, of religious beliefs, and making those the basis for our government.  When Rick Santorum criticizes the president for his “theology that’s not rooted in the bible” and for “trampling on religious liberties,” what he’s really talking about is the way he, Rick Santorum, views government; how government should work in his mind’s eye.  And his view of government is one in which his particular set of religious values rule the day.  He’s talking about governing not according to the rule of law, but according to the rule of the Christian Bible.  And that goes against the very founding principles of this nation.

Take the ridiculous contraception kerfuffle.  From the “liberal” side, it has absolutely nothing to do with “religious liberty” and everything to do with individual rights.  Virtually all employer supplied insurance plans provide full contraception coverage.  But allowing a company to pick and choose which services they do and do not want their employees to have access to amounts to discrimination.  By default it gives the employer the power to make medical decisions for their employees on the basis of their own religious moral code, forcing their beliefs on others who may or may not accept that particular view.  By denying contraception coverage, the employer is essentially injecting him or herself into the private lives of their employees.  These decisions sometimes have real world consequences.

In the testimony delivered to House Democrats, Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke told lawmakers about her friend, a fellow Georgetown Law student, who suffered from ovarian cysts that could have been treated by the use of birth control pills.  She was denied coverage for the pills due to the university’s affiliation with the Catholic Church, and doctors were eventually forced to remove one of her ovaries.  And before you ask, yes she did pay for the prescription out of pocket for a while (which can cost up to $3,000 per year), but the cost became too prohibitive, so she stopped.

When Conservatives complain about the HHS rule requiring contraception coverage, what they’re really complaining about is that the ability to impose their religious morals and beliefs on others is being stripped away.

That same metric can be applied to any number of issues:  Objections to gay marriage are almost exclusively made on religious grounds.  Outrage over the prohibition of prayer in public schools because the outraged consider it an infringement on their religious freedom.   (And by the way, kids can still pray in school should they so desire.  It simply cannot be required or facilitated by the school’s teachers or administration in a manner that has the effect of forcing all kids to participate whether they choose to or not.)  Criticisms over scientific principles taught in our schools, particularly evolution.  Policy preferences that favor a certain view of what a family is—including ideologies regarding a woman’s role in the workplace or that shame single mothers for being, well, single.  Attempts to make divorce more difficult to obtain.  All are not-so-veiled overtures about which religious principles are acceptable and which are not.

It’s important that we all pay attention to what’s being said in the political sphere and the underlying intent.  As David Corn pointed out:

If a politician views those who oppose his policies and ideas (say on birth control) as tools or partners of Satan (as opposed to simply being wrong), it could well affect how he responds to them and how he considers their argument. The president is supposedly the president of all Americans, even those who didn’t vote for him. But if the political opposition is part of (or moved by) a satanic force, then there’s not much point in granting it any respect—or seeking compromises. After all, all’s fair in spiritual warfare.

Freedom of religion is one of the very bedrock principles of the founding of our nation.  Religious oppression was the very reason the Pilgrims fled England in the first place.  The right of religious freedom of course means that all Americans have the right to their religious beliefs without interference or restriction (within reason; human sacrifice is generally frowned upon).  Just as importantly, however, it also means the right to freedom from religion.  The right to not accept any particular set of religious beliefs and live a secular life not based on religious guidance is just as inalienable as another’s right to be devoutly Catholic.

Enacting laws to prevent access to contraception or laws that make it okay for teachers and school administrators to lead prayers during class time is, therefore, a violation of religious freedom.  Enacting laws that do nothing more than allow the availability of contraception, however, doesn’t mean that anyone has to take advantage of that availability.  If contraception is against your religious principles, don’t use them.  Just like if you have a moral objection to pornography; don’t watch it.

Denying gays and lesbians their civil rights because homosexuality is against someone’s religious beliefs is itself a denial of religious freedom.  Meanwhile, making optional goods and services available is not a violation of anyone’s rights.  Denying them on the grounds of religious beliefs is.

So thanks but no thanks Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Ron Paul, and Newt Gingrich.  No thank you Franklin Graham.  I don’t want your religion.  I’m perfectly content without mine.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

thomas mc February 25, 2012 at 10:41 am

Santorum belongs in the Vatican, not the White House. He doesn’t even understand that this is a secular republic, not a Catholic theocracy. He wants to write Catholic dogma into US Law. Elect Santorum, and religious freedom in America disappears.


Sergio February 25, 2012 at 10:55 am

I agree with you. I was born an individual without any religion and I intend to stay that way. Thank you for your thoughtful and well written editorial. We need more people like you.


D February 25, 2012 at 11:10 am

You are free to work in a non-religious institution. No one is forcing you to work there, however the healthcare law is forcing an institution to fund items counter to their beliefs. This is nothing new to the democrats. Whole industries are unionized and people who want to work there must pay union dues which a large portion of the time are used to promote politics they may or may not agree with. If they don’t want to fund those politics they have the option to quit and find another career. As do the people working for religious institutions.

Unions have laid over 100 years of precedent which backs up these religious institutions. You can’t have it both ways.


Andy Cohen February 25, 2012 at 11:27 am

First of all, these institutions aren’t being forced to fund ANYTHING. The “compromise” in the rule means that the insurance companies themselves will have to cover it, allowing employees to go around the institution. What the Church wants is the ability to deny access to those who want it, and that’s against the law.

What we’re talking about are institutions that are affiliated with the Catholic Church, not the Catholic Church (or any church) itself. What the rule says is that if you operate in the secular world, employing secular workers and serving secular customers, then you have to follow the same rules as everyone else. The rule does not apply to the Catholic Church itself.

And to say that people who don’t like the policies should just quit and find another career–especially in this economy–is just sick and unreasonable. As far as I’m concerned, if the main purpose of these institutions is to promote their particular ideology, then they should ONLY hire and serve those who accept and agree with that ideology. But if their purpose is to serve the world at large, then they must operate by the same rules as everyone else.


D February 25, 2012 at 11:42 am

First of all, to your first of all, that is crap. Making the insurance company pay, raises the rates on everyone to pay for it, which would raise the rates of the institution in question. All that does is make them pay less of it. Second, the only institution that has the power to deny access to a good is the government.

Your whole second paragraph basically says that religious organizations can never do anything but pray. If they want to do anything charitable on a large scale, then they have to give up their beliefs to appease the government before they can work to help people in need?

If they only hired people that agree with their ideology they would be breaking federal discrimination laws. Good point though I never thought of it this way. So basically the government forces them to hire people that dont agree with their ideology, and then forces them to provide goods and services to said workers that are counter to their beliefs. Almost sounds like a direct attack on religious institutions when you put it that way.


Andy Cohen February 25, 2012 at 12:01 pm

The HHS rule says that insurance companies are NOT allowed to jack up their rates in order to cover contraception. And they’ll happily do so because it’s much less expensive than having to cover abortions and prenatal care. So your argument there falls flat.

But to expand on what Anna said: If Catholic hospitals and universities want to operate strictly within the framework of the Catholic Church, then they are free to do so. All they have to do is to stop accepting federal money, and they get plenty of it as it currently stands in the form of grants, Medicare/Medicaid, and federal student loans. Stop taking federal money and they can do whatever they want, hire whoever they want, and operate however they want. They then become a private enterprise/club that can operate with fewer restrictions. But if you do chose to accept federal funds, then you must follow federal law.

My guess is that these institutions won’t do that for a number of reasons, the least of which is the loss of federal monies.


Rob Healey February 25, 2012 at 12:45 pm

The HHS rule says that insurance companies are NOT allowed to jack up their rates in order to cover contraception. And they’ll happily do so because it’s much less expensive than having to cover abortions and prenatal care. So your argument there falls flat. frm Andy Cohen
First of all they can not constitutionally do this. And the US Supreme Court will through out this whole mess.


Rob Healey February 25, 2012 at 12:27 pm

First of all you obviously do not know how health insurance works. Nothing contrary to main stream media states is free. Any cost is added into the premium so these groups are still paying for services they do not agree with. Also many religous groups are self insured so they are the insurance company so again they are paying for it. This is nothing but an unconstitutional disregard for religous freedom.


Anna Daniels February 25, 2012 at 11:35 am

Those religious institutions in question are businesses ( and they get a swell tax break and places like hospitals get federal reimbursements). That’s one sweet deal and you are quite right D, you can’t have it both ways.


Marilyn Steber February 25, 2012 at 12:56 pm

Regarding the complicity of Unions in all this healthcare stuff, if employees unions had not compromised by demanding higher wages, the argument would be negated. Instead, the healthcare industry sold the idea to employers to attract talent. Unions are democratic entities, ergo, we sure don’t want them to have power. The Religious argument is as bogus as the Moral Values argument, in my opinion.


Anna Daniels February 25, 2012 at 11:19 am

And no thanks Mitt Romney, who has criticized Obama’s “secular agenda.” The irony of course is that Mitt doesn’t dare speak about his own religious convictions, which may be the most authentic thing about the man because a significant number within his own party perceive Mormonism as a “phony religion.” So much for religious freedom….


Andy Cohen February 25, 2012 at 11:30 am

Personally speaking, I view Mormonism as a cult…….but that just might be my bias against all things BYU speaking…….

(before anyone gets in a huff, that’s sarcasm folks.)


mr fresh February 25, 2012 at 11:46 am

Those religious nutcases out there hanging with–and dragging down in the general election polls, by the way– the GOP candidates are the best argument ever for separation of church and state.


Nunya February 25, 2012 at 11:47 am

Great article, thank you. I just wish more religious conservatives might be opne-minded enough to read it and respond without some canned/programmed quip. From what I have observed they seem to feel safer with right and wrong or black and white.


JEC February 25, 2012 at 12:31 pm

Churches receive federal support in a number of ways. Mexico discovered the coercive consequences of religion in politics – they barred political activity by the Catholic Church in the 30’s – nuns and priests weren’t allowed to wear their robes in public until the 90’s. Would Church in America be the big business it is if they were not subsidized through tax exempt status?


Judy Swink February 25, 2012 at 1:12 pm

A good article that echoes my own beliefs on many of the issues. What I continue to fail to understand is why and how secular laws can be used to impose and enforce so many religion-based beliefs. I continue to support President Obama (the alternatives to him are horrifying) but I am deeply disappointed by his back-pedaling on insurance coverage for contraceptives.


EatingPie February 25, 2012 at 3:42 pm

I’m kind of disappointed in this article. You complain that “religious freedom” does not fit your NON-RELIGIOUS definition of what you believe it should be. Basically you’re an atheist complaining that religious freedom is not atheistic enough! Nothing more.

If you want me to listen, get someone who understands religious motivations for morality, and have them write an article like this one. It would be far more compelling and far less “complaining.”



stan chaz February 25, 2012 at 11:33 pm

What a circus. Republicans condemn condoms! Republicans praise rape as a gift from God. Republicans endorse trans-vaginal probes. Republicans hate women (and men who want to plan their families). What’s next? Republicans mandate missionary-position only? Hey, Newt was right. ‘Cause Newt and all his Republican friends SHOULD set up a moon colony…. AND GO THERE! Then, they could tell each other what to do and how to live and who to love…. while leaving the REST of us alone, here on Earth. Newt, I always KNEW that you were a problem-solver. Unfortunately, you and your Republican friends ARE the problem…


Goatskull February 26, 2012 at 8:24 am

“Republicans hate women (and men who want to plan their families).”

You know there are many many deeply right wing women out there too. Women who would like to take abortion and contraceptive rights away from other women. It’s not just men.


Ron Gardner March 1, 2012 at 1:46 pm

It’s real simple: The U.S. is purportedly a constitutional republic, which (the Neo-conservatives like Santorumn don’t get) means separation of Church and State AND–(which the left-wing liberals don’t get)–separation of Economy and State. Only a true conservative, a Ron Paul-type right-winger, understands this. Fascism (a totalitarian central government) is left-wing (or ultra-Statist) in nature, and so-called “conservative” politicians like Santorum give real, freedom-loving, conservative right-wingers a bad name. simply put, if you’re a true right-winger, you believe in Individualism (as opposed to Statism) and Capitalism (as opposed to Socialism).


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