Is religious freedom under attack in this country?
This week, the leaders of the U.S. Roman Catholic Church will make their strongest case in perhaps decades that the religious, conservative Christians in particular, are under attack.
The method of attack, they argue, are slipping protections for people whose faith bars them from participating in or supporting in any way same-sex weddings, abortions and contraception, in particular. This includes nurses who don’t want to provide information about birth control, inn keepers who don’t want to rent to same-sex couples or employers who don’t want to have to extend health care benefits to same-sex spouses of employees.
As their annual meeting opens this week in Baltimore, the bishops’ agenda focuses not (at all) on the economy but instead on what they characterize as the new war on religious freedom. They have recently launched a new committee on the subject which will focus on protecting Americans from having to recognize or accept same-sex relationships and non-natural family planning. The bishops appear to be taking the lead for religious conservatives around the country who wish to keep these issues at the top of the public agenda but have found themselves often on the losing end of the cultural argument.
Certainly the small but growing trend of communities legally recognizing same-sex relationships is forcing the issue, as is the Obama-backed new health care law.
But when I pull the lens back beyond the last couple years, the narrative of “religion under attack” seems incomplete. There are so many barometers for what constitutes “religious freedom” and often in our increasingly pluralistic society they contradict.
Is it making sure public schools are available on Sundays for Christian worship services? What about making sure publicly-funded institutions with swimming pools have separate hours for Muslim women so they don’t have to be seen in their bathing suits by men? Is it making sure Christians have the right to put up Christmas displays in public squares – that they are forbidden to do so? What about the faith-based initiatives office, created by George W. Bush and expanded by Obama, that works to make sure faith-based social service groups get their fair share of public grants, is that freedom or politics? What about the right of religious groups who get public money to refuse to hire people outside their faith--is that religious freedom? What about the right of public schools to teach about religion or the right of parents to tell them not to?
These issues all have come up in recent years, and my sense from six years on the beat is that the overall legal trend in the past 30 years expands the legal rights of all religious groups to have access to the public square.
But contraception and marriage are different, so to the extent that folks on either side are able to make those “religious” issues, they will command the public’s attention.
Let me know your gut instinct: Is religion today practiced more or less freely than it was in the past?