January 16 marks the anniversary of the drafting by Thomas Jefferson of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786, which became the impetus for the religious freedom clause in the Bill of Rights. Presidents since have declared January 16 to be National Religious Freedom Day. In keeping with this tradition and as he has in each year of his presidency, President Obama declared January 16 National Religious Freedom Day. I do wish he’d go back and re-read this especially poignant section of his proclamation:
On Religious Freedom Day, let us…reject any politics that targets people because of their religion, including any suggestion that our laws, policies, or practices should single out certain faiths for disfavored treatment. And as one Nation, let us state clearly and without equivocation that an attack on any faith is an attack on every faith and come together to promote religious freedom for all.
In March the Supreme Court will hear the Little Sisters of the Poor’s defense against the Obama Administration’s attack on this fundamental right—for the second time. The cognitive dissonance here is dizzying. It’s difficult, to say the least, to take a religious freedom proclamation seriously when the administration seems bent on imposing the HHS mandate on the Little Sisters of the Poor, requiring them to violate their religious freedom by paying for contraceptives and abortifacients. Do we laugh or cry at the twisted irony? A little of both? Even the name of the case—Burwell vs. Little Sisters of the Poor—is enough to make one say, “seriously? The Little Sisters of the Poor? How could you be versus the Little Sisters of the Poor?” Woe to those who find themselves against the Little Sisters of the Poor.
The Little Sisters previously won a temporary reprieve from the Supreme Court in 2014 while their case made its way through the lower courts. But in July 2015, the 10th Circuit Court not only ruled against the Little Sisters of the Poor, it condescendingly lectured the Little Sisters about their own religious convictions and the teachings of their faith. The Little Sisters were wrong, the court claimed, in their understanding of their own religious convictions. This is as anti-religious freedom as it gets—a massive government organization forcing a celibate women’s religious organization dedicated to the service of the poor, who neither wants nor needs contraceptives or abortifacients (no one “needs” them) to pay for them or incur crippling fines. That the Little Sisters’ cause of religious freedom is headed to the Supreme Court for the second time is bad enough. And now we also know that the administration actually crafted the law with the intention of targeting religious and specifically Catholic organizations.
The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom Dignitatis Humanae declared that
…the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others…” (2)
Religious Freedom is a basic human right. Along with the right to life, it is fundamental and inalienable. It’s not far off to say that our nation was founded on this very principle. It is a real operating principle, not a vague nicety. If it’s not actually protected, then the very foundation of human dignity is in jeopardy.
Let’s admit that some people—ok, a great number of people—would like free contraceptives and abortifacients (again, no one needs them). We can argue later as to whether that’s at all reasonable. But what should be crystal clear, including to the President if only he’d read his own proclamation, is that even if a government saw fit to find a way to provide the people with free contraceptives, the religious freedom of a specifically religious organization to not violate their conscience by paying for them should win the day every day and twice on Sunday—and hopefully twice at the Supreme Court. That might mean that some individuals’ access to contraceptives and abortifacients will be impeded to some degree. In this case it means the Little Sisters (gasp!) and anyone not aware that these things practically hang from low branches in the West. But if that’s enough to make someone doubt the Little Sisters’ case, then he simply doesn’t get what religious freedom means.
“All people deserve the fundamental dignity of practicing their faith free from fear, intimidation…” the President proclaimed. Unless of course, paying for contraceptives and abortifacients violates your conscience. No, then we’ll sue you. Happy Religious Freedom Day!