The freedom of religion and belief is one of our most cherished liberties. The First Amendment protects our right to believe whatever we choose. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) would like you to think this right is in peril. As defenders of the Constitution, we beg to differ, and think that some of the recent controversies actually show that the First Amendment is doing its job, and confirm that religious freedom in America is alive and well.
Take, for example, a recent federal court ruling concerning federally funded grants—including to USCCB--to aid trafficking victims. For several years, the bishops would take millions in federal funds and disburse them to other organizations to deliver services to help trafficking victims rebuild their lives, such as housing, clothing, and medical care.
In administering this federal program, however, USCCB prohibited its subcontractors from providing a comprehensive range of reproductive health services – including access to contraception and abortion – to victims, many of whom have been sexually abused, forced into prostitution or raped by their traffickers. In effect, USCCB was using government money to enforce its beliefs on other organizations, some of whom were not religiously affiliated in any way.
We brought a lawsuit challenging the use of these grants to promote a particular set of beliefs at the expense of victims’ needs. Recently, the judge in that case ruled that the government was indeed wrong to allow USCCB to do so. As the court explained, this case was “about the limits of the government’s ability to delegate to a religious institution the right to use taxpayer money to impose its beliefs on others (who may or may not share them).”
Just as they did when the administration announced that employers must include contraception coverage in their health plans, the bishops cried foul, declaring that this was somehow an imposition on the right to practice their faith. This was a hollow claim then, and it’s a hollow claim now.
The bishops have every right to believe that birth control and abortion are sinful. Consistent with religious freedom, the bishops also clearly have the right to espouse those beliefs and do their best to persuade others to follow their lead. But when the bishops insist that they have a right to use taxpayer money to impose their beliefs on others, that’s something else entirely.
As the judge explained, making sure that taxpayer funds are not used to impose religious beliefs on others does not “discriminate against religion; indeed, it promotes a respect for religion by refusing to single out any creed for official favor at the expense of all others.”
Similar claims of discrimination against religion have been made a lot lately. We see arguments that religious freedom justifies agencies trying to deny loving homes to children in foster care simply because the would-be adoptive parents are gay or lesbian, to insist that hospitals should be able to deny a woman life-saving care if it meant ending her pregnancy, to allow public school guidance counselors to turn away students in crisis if they disapprove of their sexual orientation, to allow any employer the right to refuse to cover contraception in their employees’ health insurance plans, or to allow hotels and restaurants open to the public to refuse to serve same-sex couples. But we know that’s not what true religious freedom is.
The United States is among the most religious, and religiously diverse, nations in the world. Religious freedom is one of our most treasured liberties. This fundamental and defining aspect of our national character is undermined when religion is used as a license to discriminate against others or to impose beliefs on others. The First Amendment exists to allow individuals to live according to their own deeply held values, not to force those values on everyone else.
Louise Melling is the deputy legal director of the ACLU and oversees the organization’s Reproductive Freedom Project.