The Terms of Religious Liberty

Many of the arguments people have about almost anything actually boil down to dictionary problems. A lot of differences of opinion hinge on differences of definition. 

Take religious liberty for example. If you ask any ten people today if they believe everybody ought to have religious liberty, it is unlikely that even one will answer No. However, if you ask ten people if they believe the Catholic Bishops have a right to dispute the president’s order that Catholic hospitals must provide health insurance coverage for services that Catholic theology defines as sin, then you will stir up a hornet’s nest. It is obvious that the man in the street and the man in the White House do not necessarily define religious liberty the same way as the Catholic Bishops do. 

The question we are discussing is this: Does the Constitution of the United States protect religious liberty 

There is no way to have the conversation unless we understand what we are discussing. What, exactly, is religious liberty? 

In China, the government says that its citizens have religious liberty. Chinese citizens may belong to any religion they choose – if the religion they choose is authorized by the government. For example, the Chinese government says that it grants complete religious liberty to Christianity. An American hearing those words would immediately ask why there are so many rumors about religious persecution of Christians in China if Christians have religious liberty. The answer is that Christians have the liberty to belong to the Christian organization named and regulated in Chinese law. They may worship in locations registered with the Chinese government. They may listen to sermons preached by pastors trained in the Christian seminary authorized by the Chinese government as long as those pastors read from the Bible in the translation authorized by the Chinese government. If a group of Christians decides to get together in somebody’s house which is an unregistered location for prayer and Bible study with a study leader who is not licensed by the government and if they choose to read from the wrong translation of the Bible, they can all be arrested and imprisoned, and their Bibles will be confiscated. China’s definition of religious liberty doesn’t sound much like anything an American would define as religious liberty. Just a little research will reveal that it is not at all uncommon for governments to enforce religious liberty by specifying the religions people are free to join. 

The confrontation between the President of the United States and the US Catholic Bishops is entirely about the definition of religious liberty. It should be easy to figure out whether the religious liberty of Catholics is being infringed if we look at the Constitution. It isn’t. Any legal document is written in words that are subject to be defined differently by the parties to the agreement. Our Constitution is no different. The history of our country is a history of wrangling over the meaning of the words of the Constitution. The discussions about the term religious liberty and another commonly-used term, freedom of religion, are actually arguments about the words in the First Amendment to the Constitution.  

The First Amendment says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. 

In the present conflict the phrase at issue is the free exercise thereof in which the word thereof can safely be rephrased for purposes of discussion as of religion. When the president and the Catholic Bishops argue about the employer mandate in the Affordable Care Act, they are arguing about the free exercise of religion.

Because the US is not like China, the Christian religion is not defined and regulated in US law. Houses of worship are not registered in some bureau. The theology of Catholics is not required to comply with a government-authorized document in a government-authorized seminary and administered by bishops who are licensed by the government to administer the government’s version of Catholic teaching. The Catholic Bishops are completely free under US law to teach their own understanding of Catholic theology. In their interpretation of Catholic theology, they teach that every Catholic Christian is obligated to live by Catholic Christian teachings all day every day, not just during mass. They teach that Catholic Christians must not only comply with the ethical and moral standards taught by the Catholic Church at all times, but that Catholic Christians must not participate in leading non-Catholics astray, either. For a Catholic individual or a Catholic institution to promote contraception or to provide and enable contraception, just for one example, is a sin. The teaching about contraception is not simply a topic in the Sunday morning homily during worship; this teaching is about the whole life of a Catholic Christian, the whole character of any institution or individual associated with the Catholic Church. In order for a Catholic Christian to be able to engage in the free exercise of the Catholic religion, that Christian must not promote or participate in contraception either personally or as an institutional act.

(Some readers will immediately remember that many Catholics do use contraception, and some of them are just as incensed at the Bishops as the President is. This fact does not change Catholic teaching any more than people who exceed speed limits change the speed laws. Catholic teaching is not changed by the fact that some members fail to live up to it. In fact, I know of no religion where the deficient practice of members changes the teachings of the religion.)

The President of the United States demonstrates by his decision about the employer mandate that he does not understand the free exercise of religion the same way the Bishops do. Our president believes that he has allowed the free exercise of religion by granting a conscience exemption to houses of worship. The Holy Family Catholic Church in Jacksonville, for example, would be exempted from providing health insurance coverage for contraception, but its school, in the President’s eyes, is a providing a secular function, and would not, therefore, be exempt. The president clearly believes that worship is a protected exercise of religion but education in English grammar and composition is not. Notre Dame University is, according to the President of the United States, engaged in secular work, not religious, even though that university would not even exist if the people who founded it had not intended it to be permeated with the teachings and principles of the Catholic faith. The President likewise sees the work of hospitals, homeless shelters and soup kitchens as secular social work, nothing to do with religion. The administrators of these institutions must comply with a secular law that may require them to disobey teachings fundamental to their religious life.

The same issues arise with many denominations of Christians and with other religions as well. There may be a religion that is only about worship, but I am not aware of any. Hindus, for example, do not eat beef. Muslims must abstain from pork. Orthodox Jews must serve meat in different dishes than milk. None of these teachings is practiced during the worship activities of these religions. These teachings are about daily life. For our president to ignore this very basic truth about all religions betrays a serious deficit in his knowledge of religions. The exercise of any religion extends far beyond the form and practice of worship. In fact, it can properly be said that a great deal of what happens during worship in any religion is intended to shape and guide daily life outside of worship.

We who serve Christ certainly know this to be true. We know that Christ did not die in order for our worship experience to be richer. He died because our whole lives need to be redeemed. Our attitudes and behaviors all day every day are touched and shaped and guided by our growth in relationship with him. Our relationship with Christ does not take a break when we leave the sanctuary and resume when we return a week later. Christ goes with us into the world where he has commanded us to tell the good news and make disciples. The Holy Spirit dwells within the temple of our bodies, and wherever we go, our service and our whole lives grow out of an ongoing relationship with that Holy Spirit.

This is why people of all religions, Christian or not, must resist this restriction of the Catholic faith. If the government is free to compel Catholics to provide and enable contraception, what stops it from forbidding a Lutheran congregation to march on sidewalks funded by a municipal budget on Palm Sunday singing hymns and praying in unison? Can a Baptist Sunday School teacher be forbidden to mention her faith to a man sitting next to her on the plane mourning the death of his sister, just because she is not in a house of worship? Can the federal government issue a regulation forbidding religious jewelry, such as a necklace with a cross-shaped pendant, to be worn in any public place? Can a Jewish child be compelled to eat a hot dog made with pork in a school lunch, on the grounds that he is not in a synagogue?

The issue of free exercise of religion was important to the people who wrote the Constitution. The original writers believed that if the federal government were not authorized by the Constitution to establish or control religion, then the federal government did not have that power. They did not want the government either to mandate or restrict the practice of religion. Many citizens, however, recognized that it would be easy for national leaders, such as our president, to assume powers not granted to the federal government precisely because they were not specifically forbidden. Even though the Tenth Amendment says in plain language that any power not specifically granted to the federal government is, therefore, forbidden to it, the tug-of-war among the states, the people and the federal government continues to this day, and the current confrontation over the employer mandate in the Affordable Care Act is a good example of a way that this tension continues.

Christians need to be very aware of the problem. Christians need to make this problem a matter of prayer. In the USA we have been proud and privileged to be free of religious persecution, but the current issue, arising over a simple definition, shines a light on the likelihood that other issues around this same definition will arise.

The notion that worship is a protected form of exercise of religion while education, healthcare, and social services are not, is the outgrowth of secular philosophy. To a secular thinker, religion is belief in an imaginary deity. To someone who believes that faith in God is equivalent to believing in the tooth fairy, the idea that morality or ethical principles grow out of a relationship with God is completely ridiculous. Such ideas must not be permitted to impact public life. A secular thinker is quite willing to respect the existence of houses of worship or even of private prayer and Bible study, but for anyone to seek to modify public behavior because of what the secular thinker regards as private, personal quirks is unthinkable. To our president and to those in his administration who have spoken publicly on the subject, it is clearly absurd to allow any religious exercise to interfere with public health principles they believe to be rooted in reason alone. Many people, even non-religious people, might dispute whether the services the administration defines as necessary for prevention of the disease called pregnancy are rooted only in reason, and that is an argument in the definition of reason. Christians may or may not engage in that argument, but all Christians must recognize that whether or not they agree with someone’s religion, they must agree with the constitutional protection of the free exercise of religion.

If people of any faith want to remain free to live their faith in the USA, they must all be vigilant to protect the free exercise of religion. If they want religious liberty, they will need to work for it. Christians will want to add this concern to daily prayers and petitions before God. In the best Christian tradition, those prayers will produce change in word and deed of daily life.

What do you plan to do today to protect your right to freely exercise your faith?