Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Responding to Threats to Religious Freedom

Leah Seppanen Anderson


May 17, 2013

By Leah Seppanen Anderson

Religious organizations, like individuals, need religious freedom. This is the compelling thesis of Stanley Carlson-Thies’ recent Kuyper Lecture. He argues that a widespread belief has taken hold in America that views religion as merely a private act of worship. This belief threatens to inhibit the intrinsically religious act of education or service to the poor by limiting the ability of religious organizations to maintain their distinctive religious identities as they serve the public.

These challenges are real and Carlson-Thies identifies an overarching trend that connects a diverse set of conflicts between government and religious organizations.  The big picture is important, but policy details also matter, especially for how the debate is framed within and beyond the Christian community.  As Christians and religious organizations respond, I would encourage us to do so with attention to the particular policy context, with respect for everyone’s religious freedom, and with constructive suggestions for a way forward.  And finally, we should always remember the limits of the state when compared to the power of the Gospel. 

Many Christians emphasize that their opposition to the 2012 Health and Human Services contraceptive mandate is a religious freedom issue; they reject the narrow definition of religious organizations originally included in the HHS rule that would not permit an exemption for religious educational institutions or social service organizations.  But those who support the HHS mandate see this as a women’s right or public health issue. We need to understand this perspective to fully engage in the debate, and we need to clearly identify our criteria to strengthen both our argument and our Christian witness. 

The logic behind the initial narrow exemption for religious organizations was an effort to exclude only those women who were likely to agree with the religious institutions’ views on contraception. Women employed by houses of worship, as priests or other staff, could be assumed to share the religion’s broader commitments and not desire access to all FDA-approved contraception.

I work at Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts college, and I sign a statement of faith along with my contract. In that sense, Wheaton is similar to a house of worship, even though it was excluded from the Administration’s original exemption. But institutions like Georgetown or Notre Dame are different. They knowingly hire non-Catholics. Should the same policy apply here? What about the religious freedom of those non-Catholic women to discern how their religious beliefs should shape their contraceptive practices? Why should the religious freedom of the institution trump the religious freedom of the individual?

If, as Carlson-Thies argues, service and education are an intrinsic expression of the Christian faith, then we need to specify why the HHS mandate would prevent us from fulfilling those callings. Emergency contraception might be about life, but surely so are soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and free health clinics.  Religious organizations may argue that they must drop their health insurance benefits to maintain a clean conscience and an ethic of life. But employees at these organizations who depend on this health insurance for their well-being may wonder how this choice values their lives. 

The controversy over the HHS mandate highlights the limits of American healthcare reform, which still depends heavily on private, employer-based insurance.  Carlson-Thies suggests that the state should find another way to provide women access to reproductive services. I agree. And this is where religious institutions and their supporters can make a constructive contribution to the debate. If religious organizations could offer concrete suggestions for other approaches, it would demonstrate that their concern is primarily about religious freedom. It would show that they do care about women’s health, and they recognize the religious freedom of individuals as well as their organizations. 

We should be wary of ceding too much power to the state. As Carlson-Thies shows, the state can make it more difficult for Christians to love the poor and the marginalized through effective social services.  But this is who we are as Christians and the state cannot stop us from caring for others. 

We need to remember this to avoid despair and to encourage hopeful creativity as we adjust to a changing religious landscape and find new ways to meet our neighbors’ material needs. We also need to proclaim this to the state. In every interaction with religious organizations, it should be obvious to government officials that religious expression includes caring for our neighbor. The state can make this harder, but it cannot stop the spread of good news for the poor. 

- Leah Seppanen Anderson is Associate Professor of Politics & International Relations at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ilinois.

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”