On the eve of the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore, Pope Francis led a crowd of…
Is religious freedom simply bigotry disguised? Quite the opposite
“The only time religious freedom is invoked is in the name of bigotry and discrimination. I’m tired of it.”
So said New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a Jan. 27 congressional hearing. She was commenting on the case of transgender individual Evan Minton, who is suing a Catholic hospital in California because it would not assist her transition to maleness by performing a hysterectomy.
In reality, Catholic health care ethics, out of respect for our ability to cooperate with God in producing a new human life, does not allow for removing healthy reproductive organs to sterilize anyone, male or female. It is difficult to see this as “discrimination.”
But what of the congresswoman’s broader claim? Has religious freedom become a ploy for discriminating against other people?
One response is to look at the web site of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the best-known public interest law firm addressing this issue. The firm is currently defending the religious freedom of:
- Three Muslim men placed on an FBI list of suspected terrorists because their faith would not let them become informants against fellow Muslims.
- A Seventh Day Adventist fired by Walgreens because he could not work on his Sabbath, a Saturday.
- Low-income parents in Montana excluded from a tax-credit program to help pay tuition at private schools because the school they chose for their child is religious.
- A Texas diocese sued by an accused sex abuser because, due to its faith-based commitment to victims’ rights and transparency, the diocese listed him among those credibly accused of abuse.
- A physician arrested for acting on his faith by leaving food, water and blankets in the Arizona desert for undocumented immigrants who would otherwise die after crossing the border.
The major cases in which the U.S. Supreme Court has recently upheld religious freedom show the same diversity. One case involved a devout Christian school’s right to set job requirements for teachers involved in religious education. Another involved a state program in Missouri that provided free playground surfacing for children’s safety at secular schools, but excluded a Christian school. In yet another case, a Christian baker in Colorado was accused of violating the civil rights of two men because his faith did not permit him to design and decorate a wedding cake for their same-sex marriage.
Some would claim the baker was guilty of discrimination. But he had no problem serving these men, and had done so before. He simply felt he could not use his artistic talents to celebrate a wedding when that contradicted his faith. The belief that marriage is between a man and a woman is supported by the Book of Genesis, the Christian tradition and thousands of years of Western civilization. The court also found that the state’s civil rights commissioners had gone after the baker based on outright hostility to devout Christians, whom they had resolved to put in their place. The bigotry was on the other side of this case.
The Supreme Court also has upheld the religious freedom of the Little Sisters of the Poor, when the Obama administration insisted that their employee health plan include contraceptive drugs and devices — including some that can interfere with survival of a new embryonic human being. Ironically, the administration’s contraceptive mandate had its own very narrow religious exemption, but it protected only organizations that generally hire and serve members of their own religion. The sisters are called by their Christian vocation to care for frail seniors of any faith or no faith. So the administration had told the Little Sisters they were not “religious” enough for an exemption because they do not discriminate in serving the needy.
To take a broader view, the colonists who settled our shores four centuries ago were generally seeking a place where they could practice their faith freely. The framers of our Constitution included the “free exercise” of religion in the very first amendment making up our Bill of Rights. And John Adams echoed a consensus among the nation’s founders when he declared: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
A final point has been made by Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan, who are usually seen as having opposed legal philosophies. In the Christian school employment case mentioned above, they remind us that “the autonomy of religious groups … has often served as a shield against oppressive civil laws.” These groups are “critical buffers between the individual and the power of the State,” as they claim there is a higher moral law than that of man-made government.
Without that insistence on a higher power, governments will feel more free to practice discrimination and bigotry themselves. That is why discrimination against religious freedom is the most dangerous discrimination of all.
Richard Doerflinger worked for 36 years in the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He writes from Washington state.