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

Is Religious Freedom Under Threat?

Stephen V. Monsma


April 12, 2013

By Stephen V. Monsma

We Americans are justifiably proud of our tradition of religious freedom for all. We take pride in the simple, elegant—even if not fully clear—words of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Supreme Court has repeatedly insisted that religious liberty is unassailable. 

Nevertheless, there are voices today insisting that religious liberty in the United States is under threat, that we a losing one of our most precious freedoms. Do we need to be concerned over the real or potential loss of religious liberty?  I believe we do. 

For example, San Diego State University recently withdrew official on-campus recognition from two Christian student organizations and stripped them of the privileges that all other on-campus student organizations possess. The University decided that they might not limit their membership or officers to students in agreement with their Christian beliefs and ideals. A Republican student club on the same campus may limit its members to Republicans in agreement with its goals, and a vegan student club may limit its membership to students who share its vegan dietary commitments. Yet a religious student organization may not limit its officers or members to students in agreement with its religious beliefs. 

Another example: In 2011 the Department of Health and Human Services issued a regulation that required all faith-based organizations except for churches themselves to offer free contraceptive services in the health care plans they were mandated to provide their employees. And contraceptives were defined broadly enough to include abortifacients. As a result many Catholic and some Evangelical faith-based organizations are being pressured to violate their religious beliefs.  

A third example: For 40 years Catholic Charities affiliates in Illinois had served, as the New York Times put it, “as a major link in the state’s social service network for poor and neglected children.” That service to “the least of these” ended in late 2011. Why? Because the state of Illinois insisted that Catholic Charities agencies must—in violation of long-standing Catholic belief—place foster care and adoptive children with same sex couples on the same basis as married heterosexual and single-parent families. When forced to choose between continuing to provide a service or violating their religious beliefs, they chose not to violate their beliefs.

At the heart of these violations of religious liberty—and many more I could cite—lies an assumption that is as false as it is unexamined. Because of this assumption, which asserts that religion has only to do with religious congregations and their worship activities and celebrations and with personal, private prayer and devotions, I fear there indeed is a long-term threat to religious freedom in our land. Left out are deeply religious nonprofit organizations that have entered the public realm to provide health, educational and social services. They are the means by which their members seek to live out their faiths’ commands to provide help to those in need. Yet there is a mindset in our country that holds such organizations are not truly religious. 

Boston College, as its website declares, is “committed to maintaining and strengthening the Jesuit, Catholic mission of the University.” Nevertheless, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney last week told CNN that the organization opposes Boston College’s refusal to allow the distribution of condoms on campus because “while Boston College is religiously affiliated it’s not a church.” This is, of course, true. But it is also beside the point. To suggest that because a college—or any other religiously-based, public-service organization—is not a church that it has lesser religious freedom rights is as dangerous as it is mistaken. 

Religion is more than worship; freedom of religion is more than freedom of worship. Yet today there are powerful forces in our society seeking to reduce the freedom of religion to the freedom of worship.  When persons—as individuals or, more likely, as members of organizations—take their faith into the public realm of health care, education and social services, they are being no less religious than when they kneel in prayer. “Faith without works is dead,” as James—and the rest of Scripture—insists. To be discriminated against because of their faith and to be pressured to act contrary to their religious beliefs is as much a violation of the religious liberty of religious organizations and individuals as attempts to interfere with their religious congregations’ rituals and celebrations.

—Stephen V. Monsma is a Senior Research Fellow at the Henry Institute at Calvin College and Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Pepperdine University.

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