All the action in Charlotte this week isn’t on the floor of the Democratic National Convention. Issue briefings give activists on any number of topics opportunities to engage delegates, virtually all of whom are opinion leaders back home. I took part in such a briefing Tuesday (like one that was also offered at the Republican National Convention in Tampa) sponsored by Catholics for Choice.
Our goal was to enable delegates to answer the specious argument promulgated by the Vatican, the Mormon hierarchy, and some evangelicals that their religious liberty is being threatened by public policies that ensure women have access to the reproductive health care they need and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have equal access to the civil (not religious) right to marry.
Sara Hutchinson of Catholics for Choice made clear that the Constitution protects the religious liberty of individuals from the dictates of powerful organizations like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the 13 elders who run the Mormon Church.
“The freedom to follow one’s conscience is at the center of our Catholic tradition because it affirms each individual’s moral agency. Our Constitution protects both the freedom of religious expression and the freedom from government sanction of any one religion.”
I offered: “Far from having their personal right to worship and teach as they please inhibited, right wing religious leaders are pushing to write their doctrine into the civil laws of our states and nation. Religious liberty is a very complex subject, but one thing is clear: decisions about birth control and abortion should be a matter of individual conscience, not institutional policy. Individuals – not employers and certainly not government – should be responsible for making decisions about birth control or ending a pregnancy.”
Bishop Tonyia Rawls, founder and CEO of the Freedom Center for Social Justice, relayed some of the detrimental effects of North Carolina’s recently passed constitutional amendment banning not only marriage equality, but civil unions and domestic partnerships. She said, “Access to the many benefits afforded others (is) now denied to law abiding, taxpaying gay and straight couples. A small but powerful few imposed their religious views on an entire state, potentially harming thousands of children and families.”
Nevertheless, Rawls was hopeful: “The thing that makes us mighty as a nation is the thing that makes us complex – and that is freedom. In my Christian tradition, God gave free will and it is that very freedom that challenges and provokes in ways that lets the best of our beliefs shine through. Our willingness to lovingly grapple with and provide space for the ‘otherness’ in our neighbors is the way we exhibit the best of who we are, both as people of faith and as a nation.”
Loving engagement of our neighbors is not a burden. It is a blessing of freedom we must never fail to defend.
The Rev. Harry Knox is president and CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, based in Washington, D.C.