Religious Freedom, Religious Exemptions, and the Responsibility of the Majority

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Lets talk about religious freedom, shall we? It seems that the religious news feeds are consumed with the notion lately, all centered on coverage for birth control and emergency contraception. For those who haven’t been following the controversy, it all stems from a new Department of Health and Human Services rule that would require employers to provide contraception in their health care plans. This new rule would apply to all employers, including schools and hospitals run by religious organizations, though churches and businesses that primarily hire people of their own faith were granted exemptions. This prompted a firestorm of controversy, particularly from Catholics, who claimed the new rule trampled their religious freedoms.

The all-male, all-Abrahamic, panel on religious freedom.

The all-male, all-Abrahamic, panel on religious freedom.

The Obama Administration countered by creating a new compromise that would make contraception coverage a direct relationship with their insurance provider in instances where a religious employer objected to offering coverage. While the compromise mollified some Catholic institutions, Roman Catholic Bishops, along with a growing chorus of conservative protestants and evangelicals, are doubling down in their opposition. Now, it isn’t simply about Catholic hospitals and other employers run by a religious organization, but about any employer who doesn’t morally agree with birth control (despite the fact that many states already mandate contraception coverage). Hence the recently voted-down Blunt Amendment that would have created unprecedented conscience exceptions to employers providing health insurance.

“But Blunt’s proposal doesn’t just apply to religious employers and birth control. Instead, it would allow any insurer or employer, religiously affiliated or otherwise, to opt out of providing any health care services required by federal law—everything from maternity care to screening for diabetes. Employers wouldn’t have to cite religious reasons for their decision; they could just say the treatment goes against their moral convictions. That exception could include almost anything—an employer could theoretically claim a “moral objection” to the cost of providing a given benefit. The bill would also allow employers to sue if state or federal regulators try to make them comply with the law.”

Conservative activists think that this is a winning wedge issue, claiming that there is a “war on religion” (or at least religious freedom) underway, promising apocalyptic results should Obama get a second term. Meanwhile, conservative pundits seem to have gone over the edge in their attacks on law student Sandra Fluke, who gave testimony on why contraception coverage was important. This was after a controversial House panel on the contraception rule that included only men. All of this exists in an atmosphere where contraception, abortion, and women’s health seem to be under a level of scrutiny and attack not seen in years. 2011 and 2012 have been record years for abortion restrictions, and it seems like we are re-arguing debates that had been, for many, largely settled.

So, with all this talk about religious freedom, about a war on religion, where are the voices of minority religions? We seem to hear all about what Catholics and evangelicals think about contraception, and occasionally we even hear from a Muslim, but what about the millions of Americans who are outside the conservative Abrahamic paradigm, or the millions who are but disagree with their conservative brothers and sisters? As religion professor Anant Rambachan, a Hindu, recently pointed out Christianity isn’t the only religion that has opinions about various social issues.

“It is important that our voices also be offered in the public square. This amendment threatens to enshrine in law the perspective of particular religions and marginalize others. Once you start enshrining Christian morality into law, you inherently limit the religious freedoms of non-Christian faiths.”

Instead of being about religious freedom, this debate, according to Danielle Tumminio, is becoming increasingly about how members of one religion can treat members of another religion.

“The issue, then, is really about how Catholics treat non-Catholics. After all, presumably Catholics would not want birth control — it’s all the other folks who do. Which makes this a debate not about religious freedom but about how people of one faith care for those who do not share their beliefs.”

The preferred defense against such arguments is that individuals can simply not apply at employers who they disagree with, or not frequent businesses who don’t share their moral views, but that isn’t always an option. Particularly when the only hospital near you might be a Catholic hospital, or a town is dominated by conservative Christian business owners, which is far more towns than you think. It simply isn’t feasible for all the non-Christians to move to a socially liberal area and only find employment with non-Christian employers. We are supposed to be living in a secular society, one that not only protects the religious liberties of hospital owners, but also protects the rights of individuals who might need care at one. As such, compromises need to be made, or else the grand experiment of our republic fails.

Religious exemptions must have limits or they are useless in protecting the rights of individuals and groups who may disagree with a certain faith’s beliefs. Once you extend religious/moral exemptions to any and all private business it would quickly create areas in the United States where certain groups are “relegated to a special untouchable status,” leading to the ostracism of a variety of communities and increasing “balkanization.” Scenarios where Pagans suddenly find it increasingly hard to find businesses that will serve them aren’t some cautionary fantasy tale. If the level of religious exemptions currently favored by certain politicians were allowed to become reality, it could lead to tacitly enforced “no-go” areas for non-Christians.

It’s easy to forget that it was once Catholics who helped usher in a sweeping disestablishment of religion in the United States. We once lived in a “Protestant America,” one where Franklin D. Roosevelt could safely opine that “the Catholics and Jews are here under sufferance.” Carlton J.H. Hayes, the first Catholic co-chairman of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, maintained that “in this country Protestants have the major responsibility for assuring justice and true toleration to non-Protestants, not because they are Protestants but because they are [the] majority group.” Today, Catholics and Evangelicals are the most powerful Christian groups in America. They are the majority group. As such, they can no longer pretend to be the trod-upon minority of years past, can no longer refuse to own their own power and privilege in our society. While we must certainly guarantee their religious freedoms, it must now be weighed against the rights of any and all who don’t fit into their conceptions of morality or a well-ordered society. Any religious exemption in a secular pluralistic nation must be weighed against how that exemption will affect the millions who don’t believe as they do.

The compromise offered by the Obama Administration seems more than fair to the moral sensibilities of Catholics and other groups opposed to contraception. Any steps further would enshrine a status quo that simply privileges the majority, and create a rights system that is beholden to whichever religious group is currently in power. While that may seem ideal to Catholics and evangelicals now, I would remind them that no group’s fortunes prevail forever, and there may come a day generations from now when Pagan hospitals are asking for exemptions from the desires of Christian patients. At such a moment, they will no doubt want the majority to be extra-sensitive to their beliefs and needs, to their different moral views.