Threats to Religious Liberty: Real and Imagined

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 30:  Religious freedom supporters hold a rally to praise the Supreme Court's decision in the Hobby Lobby,
CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 30: Religious freedom supporters hold a rally to praise the Supreme Court's decision in the Hobby Lobby, contraception coverage requirement case on June 30, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby, which operates a chain of arts-and-craft stores, challenged the provision and the high court ruled 5-4 that requiring family-owned corporations to pay for insurance coverage for contraception under the Affordable Care Act violated a federal law protecting religious freedom. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Religious liberty is under attack. A number of presidential candidates have made this claim, and it was one of the key issues in Thursday night's Republican debate. One of the moderators, Hugh Hewitt of Salem Radio, even asserted that his worries about religious liberty keep him up at night.

There is no question that religious liberty is under attack -- outside the United States. The U.S. State Department prepares an annual report on the status of religious freedom around the world and it can make for grim reading. Religious-based violence is widespread in many countries and in a number of countries this persecution is tolerated and, in some cases, even supported by the government. In addition, all too many countries continue to have laws punishing "blasphemy," which serve as vehicles for suppressing religious minorities and preventing them from expressing their beliefs.

And then there is the Islamic State, which through its campaign of murder and mayhem is effectively carrying out genocide against various religious minorities, such as Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims. In fact, the nonprofit organization of which I am president, the Center for Inquiry, joined with some other nonprofit organizations to urge President Obama to formally declare the destruction of these religious communities by the Islamic State an act of genocide.

"There is no question that religious liberty is under attack -- outside the United States."

One curious thing about this letter is that it resulted in an article in a Christian publication that appeared to express astonishment that the Center for Inquiry -- most of whose supporters are nonreligious -- would express such strong support for Christians and other religious groups. Actually, almost all atheists, agnostics, and humanists in the United States are vigorous supporters of freedom of conscience -- for everyone. The nonreligious are all too aware of how religious bigotry has adversely affected them. Although outright persecution of nonbelievers is now rare in most Western countries, in many other countries open atheism continues to be a virtual death sentence. So most of the nonreligious recognize the importance and value of freedom of conscience and will do what they can to ensure everyone enjoys this fundamental freedom.

The essence of religious liberty is, of course, the freedom to believe what one wants to believe about gods and to express that belief, whether in writing, speaking, or in worship services. No one should be punished for exercising that freedom.

Which brings me to the claims about the alleged threats to religious liberty in the United States. Based on the rhetoric and the handwringing of some presidential candidates and some representatives of the religious right, you would think that jackbooted troopers were burning churches and temples and hauling off believers to concentration camps. But the last time I checked, no one in the U.S. is being punished for what they believe or for expressing that belief. You can write a pamphlet or blog post expressing belief in one god, no god, or twenty gods without the slightest concern that the government is going to imprison you.

So what's the fuss about? What's robbing Hugh Hewitt of his sleep?

It's not a concern that people can't express their own beliefs. No, it seems to be a concern that people will not have the license to impose their beliefs on others. The two flashpoints for the current controversy over "religious liberty" in the U.S. are the desire of some businesses not to serve some customers because of some perceived moral flaw in the customer and the desire of some religious nonprofits not to be "complicit" in the provision of contraception under Obamacare's Contraceptive Mandate.

Regarding the business's desire to pick and choose among customers, John Kasich, hardly a radical enemy of religion, hit the nail on the head when he said that if you're in the business of selling cupcakes, customers can reasonably expect you to sell them a cupcake. It shouldn't matter whether they're gay, divorced, or wearing white shoes after Labor Day. The notion that your freedom of conscience is violated when someone whose conduct you object to buys your cupcake is absurd.

With respect to the currently pending fight over the Contraceptive Mandate, it is important to note that the Obama Administration has expressly granted an exemption to religious nonprofits. If a religious nonprofit has an objection to contraception, they do not have to pay for contraception for their employees. All they have to do to be exempt from paying for contraception is to file a form registering their objection. So where is the violation of religious liberty?

"These protests about alleged violations of religious liberty actually constitute a regrettable distortion of the concept of religious liberty."

Apparently, the violation of religious freedom consists of asking the nonprofit to file a form that confirms they have an objection. That is what is at issue in Zubrik v. Burwell, the case now before the Supreme Court. Yes, that's right, that's the contention: filing a form so the government can grant you a religious exemption is itself an unconscionable burden on religious liberty. On this theory, presumably the government can't require conscientious objectors who want to be exempt from military service to make a written request. I guess the government has to discern their objections through telepathy.

These protests about alleged violations of religious liberty actually constitute a regrettable distortion of the concept of religious liberty. They convert a fundamental freedom that is designed to protect the dignity and autonomy of the individual into a weapon that can be used to impose burdens on others.

Religious liberty should be protected. Religious liberty is critically important. It is so critically important that we should not countenance the efforts of some to pervert its true meaning.