“The Obama administration is engaged in a war against religion,” Newt Gingrich told an audience last month. “This is going to be fought out with lawsuits, with court decisions, and, dare I say it, maybe even in the streets,” Catholic League President Phil Donohue added last week. Fortunately, the administration has backed off its war—its rule that health insurance provided by religious employers must cover birth control—rather quickly. “Religious freedom will be protected,” President Obama said in a statement Friday.
But this saga exposes a sad underlying truth of American society—that religious individuals have, for all practical purposes, more rights than the non-religious. Freedom of conscience for not only President Obama, but also the media and most members of Congress extend only to those who base their conscientious objections on dogma. Secular moral convictions—like the basic belief that coercion is immoral—need not apply for the president’s “religious exception.”
The White House confirmed its view that religious individuals have additional protection under the law this week. After Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) proposed an amendment to the Affordable Care Act that would extend the religious exception to non-religious employers, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney responded, “The proposal applies to all employers—not just religious employers. And it isn’t limited to contraception. Any employer could restrict access to any service they say they object to.” In other words, freedom of conscience extends to religious employers and religious beliefs only.
This view isn’t just held by the Obama administration. Liberal and conservatives alike endorse the idea that the Constitution provides unequal protection to religious views. For the American Founders, however, freedom of religion was a much broader concept. As James Madison wrote in 1785, “the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men…. Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us.”
The apparent position of most members of the media and government is that this “equal freedom” does not exist, that Catholic dogma deserves unequal protection. To think the founders—which included such noteworthy skeptics as Jefferson and Franklin—envisioned believers with more rights than nonbelievers is absurd in the highest degree.
Government’s “war on religion” is a myth. In reality, there’s a war on everything. Bureaucrats wielding governmental force trample over nonviolent Americans on a daily basis. It’s just that the war is only acknowledged when it targets those who believe the Earth is six thousand years old, birth control is evil, or gays are a moral threat to children. Of course, all these beliefs deserve equal protection under the law, but what a world we live in when they deserve more protection than the thoughtful, heart-felt considerations of America’s skeptics.
The Supreme Court has already ruled that religious exceptions to one mandate—the draft—can be based on more than just holy books. The Court found in Welsh v. U.S. (1970) that secular objections to war are valid if they aren’t based on “policy, pragmatism, or expediency,” are analogous to “traditional religious convictions,” and are opposed to all wars. Yet even here, the Court has basically ruled that U.S. law affords greater protection to irrational, unnuanced beliefs.
Free exercise of conscience should include secular and religious concerns, as the Court ruled, but what makes emotional reasons sacrosanct? Why shouldn’t society not equally defend the pragmatic, the rational, or the economical? How is coercion to control an economic liberty any better than using it to control a religious liberty? The American Founders, of course, saw no difference. “Rightful liberty is unobstructed action,” Jefferson wrote in 1819, “within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law,’ because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual.”
Today, the “tyrant’s will” has prevailed against some, but not all, and so it has made itself not only unjust, but capricious. If we are to make a religious exception to Obamacare’s mandates, we must concede the equal right of all persons and organizations to follow their own will and conscience, from whatever source they derive their judgments, and respect the integrity of their freedom of choice.