The writer, of Omaha, holds the McGrath, North, Mullin and Kratz Chair in Business Law at the Creighton University School of Law. He writes as an individual and not on behalf of Creighton.
Today, Catholics in the United States are being called to observe a “Fortnight for Freedom” — a period of prayer, education and activism devoted to the protection of religious liberty.
This subject is worthy of attention from all citizens, as it involves the preservation of sacred space that belongs to each of us and which is fundamental to human dignity.
Religious liberty is widely embraced as a human right, not only in our U.S. Constitution but in other declarations of foundational principles to which humanity aspires. But the Founding Fathers’ commitment to religious freedom does not transmit automatically across generations. The preservation and protection of fundamental liberties requires constant renewal.
Unfortunately, religious freedom is being threatened on many fronts. While promising more freedom, some laws actually restrict freedom by shrinking the sacred space we need to live out our commitments to an authority higher than the state.
Mandated coverage of contraception and sterilization services under the Affordable Care Act restricts the freedom of religious organizations and individuals with faith-based commitments to affirm and protect human life. More than 200 religious organizations, private firms and individuals have filed lawsuits challenging the requirement to purchase goods and services that offend their beliefs and to provide them as a benefit in kind to their employees.
Not all citizens share the particular beliefs affected by the mandate, but all of us should consider the implications of government coercion in this context. If government can force a Catholic nonprofit to purchase abortion-causing drugs for its employees, what about euthanasia services, too? A forced purchase not only interferes with an efficient marketplace but also prevents citizens from living out their faith, affecting employers and employees alike.
For a society that values tolerance and diversity, what could be so compelling about making contraception and sterilization available free of charge when the cost to religious freedom is so great? Must the government coerce some in order to facilitate sexual freedom for others?
The redefinition of marriage and family rights also presents threats to religious freedom. Progressives may hail the redefinition of marriage to include homosexual relationships as another step toward personal autonomy, but serious implications for religious freedom lurk here from laws designed to coerce the adoption of this new morality. Other countries have gone so far as to even restrict speech from the pulpit that challenges the secular dogma.
But even here, laws that contemplate civil damages, criminal sanctions or the loss of public benefits and contracts threaten those who dissent. Catholic adoption agencies were driven out of business in Illinois, Boston and D.C. based on their refusal to follow state laws that contradicted their faith commitments. Faithful business people also have been forced to close their doors because of their religious commitments to the sanctity of marriage.
Rather than embracing a diverse marketplace and the free expression of ideas, these laws coerce dissenters and compromise their religious freedom.
The promise of religious freedom recognizes that human beings live in the tension of dual citizenship, in which commitments from our citizenship in the City of God are maintained along with our commitments to our temporal government. Given religious pluralism, it reflects a truce of sorts, a willingness to admit the limits of our own understanding concerning the good and the just, and a recognition that dialogue, not coercion, leads to greater understanding and the hope of building a common good, despite our dissimilarities.
G.K. Chesterton once remarked that every true patriot is a little sad — because he recognizes that his country is not all it could be. We naturally love our country as we love our families. Despite their flaws, we respect and venerate those who brought forth life and offered a promising future to us.
In this Fortnight for Freedom, let us all rekindle a commitment to defend religious freedom and act with respect toward all persons. Our individual and collective human dignity depends on it.