ARTICLE

US Catholic bishops’ abuse of ‘religious freedom’

The founding fathers saw the state as guarantor of freedom from persecution. Now, the Church is trying to cast it as persecutor

by Katherine Stewart, The Guardian, June 26, 2012

My latest column for The Guardian:


The US Conference of Catholic Bishops in session in Atlanta, Georgia, earlier this month. Photograph: Tami Chappell/Reuters

It is a terrible thing when a once-noble phrase gets beaten to a meaningless pulp. The time has now come to rescue the phrase “religious freedom” from its abusers. In the writings and speeches of Catholic bishops and evangelical leaders in recent months, “religious freedom” has come to mean something close to its opposite. It now stands for “religious privilege”. It is a coded way for them to state their demand that religious institutions should be allowed special powers that exempt them from the laws of the land.

On 22 June, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops kicked off its “Fortnight for Freedom”, a campaign of complaints about alleged persecution of the largest, most powerful and politically influential religious denominations in the United States. Religious freedom is “in jeopardy in America”, says Archbishop Jose H Gomez in a prominent article in the theological journal First Things. Let’s consider some of the alleged assaults.

At St Xavier University in Chicago, Illinois, the adjunct professors had not had a raise in five years, according to Tom Suhrbur, an organizer with the Illinois Education Association. In 2010, in hopes of securing higher pay and benefits, they sought to organize themselves into a union.

The administration of St Xavier, with the backing of many prominent Catholic organizations, opposed the effort on legal grounds. Why? Because, it claimed, theirs is a religious institution, and the unionization of its employees would involve a violation of its “religious freedom”. The National Labor Relations Board sided with the adjuncts, pointing out that neither the university, nor its faculty, nor their courses were actually religious in any meaningful sense.

But Catholic University of America President John Garvey, at an address to the bishops intended to kick off the “Fortnight for Freedom”, listed the National Labor Relations Board decision as a grievous example of the “decline in respect for religious freedom”. In his mind, it seems, “religious freedom” means the power to engage in union-busting without having to obey national and state labor laws. In the past month, attempts by Duquesne University adjuncts in Pittsburgh have run into the same sort of opposition, as the university argues that its affiliation with the Spiritans, a Roman Catholic order, affords it a special exemption from the jurisdiction of the NLRB.

Evangelical organizations are just as convinced as the bishops that religious liberty in the United States is under attack. For them, many of the issues center on public schools, and the most egregious assault is the reported ban on school prayer. In fact, prayer by students in appropriate places and times has never been banned. What is banned is religious groups using the authority of the school to impose their prayer on other people’s children. That’s not freedom. That’s power.

The event that precipitated the “Fortnight for Freedom”, of course, was the Obama administration‘s decision that insurance plans offered under the Affordable Care Act would be required to cover certain aspects of women’s healthcare, including contraception and other family planning services. Catholic hospitals, universities, schools, and other affiliated institutions employ hundreds of thousands of women across the country, many of whom are not themselves Catholic, and most of whom are engaged in work that has nothing to do with religion. But to Catholic bishops, the idea that a Catholic-affiliated organization would be obligated to give these female employees healthcare coverage which they consider objectionable is a gross violation of “religious freedom”. In other words, rather than being a guarantee of your freedom to worship, religious liberty is the power to rewrite laws that offend you – such as laws designed to protect the health of working women.

In his lament over this alleged assault on the bishops’ “freedom” to deprive their employees of healthcare, Archbishop Gomez said that the issue was not just about contraception. He is right about that part, at least; let us put the “war on women” to one side, for the moment. This is a war of conquest, designed to expand the power of religious institutions at the expense of the rest of society and the state. It is about carving out an even larger share of the special privileges and exemptions that are already made available only to organized religious institutions.

Such privileges are already substantial. Religions already receive hefty subsidies – by some estimates, as much as $71bn a year – through broad tax exemptions, deductions, and faith-based government programs. A “ministerial exemption” allows them to hire and fire people directly involved in religious activity without regard to anti-discrimination laws.

But they want more. And they are willing to turn the meaning of the word “persecution” on its head to get it.

Archbishop Gomez makes the astonishing claim that religious freedom has suffered in America because the country is becoming “less religious”, and people who aren’t religious supposedly don’t care about religious freedom. It is remarkable enough that a Catholic bishop would assume that people only care about what affects them directly. So, presumably, only poor people would care about poverty, or only gay people care about gay rights. It is flat wrong for the archbishop to suggest that religious freedom is only for the benefit of the religious.

Archbishop Gomez seems to think that religious freedom is some kind of privilege that you get from the state in exchange for signing up for a particular faith. But religious freedom in America has always meant the freedom from state involvement in religion. And it has always been understood, at least until now, that this freedom requires that the state refrain from granting any privilege to religion. The whole point of the first amendment, with its carefully balanced clauses prohibiting the establishment of religion while guaranteeing the right to the free exercise of religion, is to make sure that our freedom of religion comes with this necessary freedom from religion.

Since Archbishop Gomez appears to believe that people only care about things that affect them directly, let me put it this way: anyone who seeks the truth, whether religious or not, can see the advantage of a system that prevents any one group from using state power to establish a monopoly on it.

The “Fortnight for Freedom” began with the celebration of the feast of St Thomas More, the English Lord Chancellor who was beheaded in 1535 by Henry VIII for refusing to acknowledge that the king, not the pope, was then the supreme head of the church in England. More is a curious choice as a representative of the idea of religious freedom. Before he got into trouble with Henry VIII, he busied himself burning heretics and banning books, such as Protestant translations of the New Testament.

More didn’t represent religious freedom. He represented the Catholic Church of his time.

There is a precedent in the past for a system that grants religious institutions special rights to control land and labor, that cedes to them a monopoly on the indoctrination of other people’s children, and that allows them to decide on matters of individual and public health. It was called feudalism. It worked out well for the church. For the serfs, not so much.

This is not to say that those behind the “Fortnight for Freedom” can take us back to the days of moats and turrets. But it should at least make clear where they are coming from, and where they may take us if they manage to get all the “religious freedom” they demand.

The Book
The Good News Club, by Katherine Stewart

The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children

About the Author
author Katherine Stewart Katherine Stewart has written for The New York Times, the Atlantic, and the Guardian. She lives in New York City. Contact her. More →

 


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