Religious Liberty Is a Shield and Not a Sword

Co-Author: Kelly Damerow, interim executive director for Secular Coalition for America

Conservatives are trying to spin a yarn that the religious liberty of Christians in this country is under attack. When the Supreme Court handed down its pro-marriage-equality decision in June, conservative pundits opined that Christian congregations would soon be required to let gays and lesbian marry in their churches. And when they heard a white supremacist terrorist (who is Lutheran, by the way) attacked Emanuel Methodist Episcopal Church, some tried to frame it as an attack on Christianity. Well, these scare tactics and reframing aren't going to work because there's not a war on Christians in this country; religious liberty is alive and well.

The United States Council of Catholic Bishops is wrapping up its Fortnight for Freedom campaign. This campaign is part of a larger push to redefine religious liberty that started with the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision last year. The USCCB and others like them use that decision to claim they have a fundamental, constitutional right to dictate how others live.

One of the fundamental protections in the Constitution, the right to practice or not to practice a religion has a long and distinguished history in our country, where we welcome a diversity of thoughts, beliefs, and practices. Unfortunately, everybody's rights are harmed when people begin to claim that the only way they can adequately practice their religion is to discriminate against others and to deny them services, be it refusing service if they are LGBT or denying a woman access to reproductive health care.

As a diverse coalition of religious denominations and religiously-affiliated organizations, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice has an intimate understanding of the important role faith plays in one's personal and public life. Likewise, the Secular Coalition for America represents the voice of wide array of atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers and other nontheistic Americans. Together we might not agree on theology, but we do agree that good policy allows for all people regardless of their religious or non-religious identity to follow their own faith and conscience when directing the course of their life.

Whether we are religious or not, our values should - and do - influence our politics. The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, for example, relies on faith as it seeks to end structural barriers to reproductive and sexual health. However, the First Amendment makes clear that public policy is not to be based on theology. In a religiously diverse, pluralistic society, favoring any one religious worldview is wrong and inherently biased.

The USCCB and their allies want to create a society where they can pick and choose what laws they follow, all while citing a "religious belief." The bishops want the benefits of government contracts for things like working with undocumented youth and women who are crossing the border, but then refuse to give them services they need if they've been raped. They refuse to even refer young women to organizations who can offer them a full range of reproductive health services. Faith-based organizations doing this work receive the same money as other groups, yet both Presidents Bush and Obama failed and fail to hold them to the same standards as non-religious ones.

Religious liberty, under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, was designed as a shield to protect individuals from otherwise general laws, like the right for a Sikh to wear a turban as part of ROTC. The authors never intended RFRA to be used as an increasingly broad sword, aimed at harming individuals for whatever reason cited by the wielder.

Under the USCCB's interpretation of religious liberty, they can have oversight of the reproductive health choices of their female employees, such as using birth control. By denying a woman the right to determine what she needs in her unique situation, the USCCB is creating an unequal society where women who work for them are punished financially for taking control of their reproductive health.

When it comes to matters of reproductive health, real religious liberty protects the right of a woman to make thoughtful decisions in private consultation with her doctor, her family, and her own faith. It is not getting to pick and choose what laws you follow and what laws you don't.

Don't let the USCCB fool you with how they're presenting Fortnight for Freedom. The only freedom they want to preserve is their freedom to discriminate, not your freedom to practice, or not, a religion of your choice.