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Until very recently, the West saw religious liberty as a weight-bearing pillar of human freedom. Thus, the very first clause of the First Amendment (1789) states,

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof

More broadly, Article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) provides:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

That’s unequivocal. Freedom of religion means the right to live according to one’s own faith, that is, to “manifest” our religion or belief in practice , both “in public or private,” without interference from the state.

Wesley J. Smith These days, that and $2 will buy you a small cup of Starbucks’ coffee. Strident secularism is on the march and freedom of religion is the target, with secularist warriors attempting to drive religious practice behind closed doors by redefining religious liberty down to a hyper-restricted, “freedom of worship.”

What’s the difference? Under freedom of worship, the Catholic and Orthodox churches both remain perfectly free to teach that the Eucharistic bread and wine transform into the body and blood of Christ. Muslims can continue to require women to be segregated from men at the mosque. But outside worship contexts, the state may compel the faithful to violate their faith by acting in accord with secular morality rather than consistently with their dogmatic precepts.

These assaults on religious practice are becoming increasingly commonplace. For example, a German trial judge recently outlawed the circumcision of children on the basis that the “fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents”, to carry out their religious beliefs.

Circumcision is controversial today, but redefining the rite into “mutilation” or “child abuse” is blatant secular imperialism. For millennia, faith adherents have believed that circumcision is done for boys (rather than to them). Indeed, prohibiting the rite deprives male children of these faiths a religious benefit to which they are entitled while dispossessing them of a core aspect of their personal identity.

Jewish and Muslim religious practice is also under assault in the Netherlands, where a new law may outlaw methods of animal slaughter that comply with the obligations of kosher and halal. Religious liberty? What’s that? The atheist bioethicist Peter Singer sniffed that Jews and Muslims who don’t like the ban should just become vegetarians, writing that since the ban would not prohibit worship practices, no freedoms are being infringed.

We see the same freedom of worship assault against freedom of religion in President Obama’s “Free Birth Control Rule.” The Affordable Care Act now requires that most employers provide their workers with free contraception, sterilization, and other reproductive services. True, the rule exempted religious employers that oppose contraception, but the shield was drafted so narrowly that”surprise, surprise”it only protects freedom of worship. Specifically, to qualify for a religious exemption:

1. The “inculcation of religious values” must be the employer’s “purpose” for existing;
2. The employer must “primarily” employ “persons who share its religious tenets.”
3. The employer must “primarily” serve “persons who share its religious tenets.”

Lest there be any doubt, the rule further states, “Specifically, the Departments seek to provide for a religious accommodation that respects the unique relationship between a house of worship and its employees in ministerial positions .” Thus, the group health insurance covering nuns in a Catholic religious order would probably not have to cover contraception. But insurance provided by the order’s elementary school employees, probably would.

Religious liberty is also under assault from efforts to eviscerate the right of medical conscience. Victoria, Australia, for example, legally compels every doctor to participate in abortion”even if morally or religiously opposed”either by doing the deed when asked, or referring the pregnant patient to a doctor they know supports abortion. The Dutch Medical Association (KNMG) recently promulgated a similar ethical rule requiring all Dutch doctors to kill, or if opposed on religious or moral grounds, refer when legally qualified patients ask to be euthanized. In other words, the affected doctors are free to believe that participating in abortion and euthanasia are egregious sins; they just can’t legally or ethically escape so sinning and remain in practice.

At this point in the discussion, opponents of freedom of religion may bring up the Aztecs, arguing that a robust view of religious liberty would require allowing children to be sacrificed to pagan gods. Not so. Even fundamental liberties are not absolute. The law properly prohibits religious practice when there is a compelling government interest. For example, the state can force a Jehovah’s Witness child to be given life-saving blood transfusions even though doing so violates Witness dogma.

Here’s the bottom line. If the freedom of worship assault against freedom of religion succeeds, creed-motivated philanthropic and service organizations such as the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, and religiously sponsored schools, hospitals, nursing homes, pregnancy counseling centers, etc., will be forced to choose between acting contrary to their faith and closing their doors. That would not only make our society far less free, but would materially harm the millions of men, women, and children whose lives are immeasurably benefited by faithful people practicing their religion in the public square.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism, and consults for the Patients Rights Council and the Center for Bioethics and Culture.


Peter Singer, The use and abuse of religious freedom

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