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Congress Debates the First Amendment

This morning, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (Congressman Darrell Issa’s committee) hosted a panel of religious leaders, representing the Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, Orthodox Judaism, and a Baptist seminary, to discuss the ongoing struggle over inclusion of contraceptive options in insurance provisions by religious institutions. (It was the first panel this morning.)

Predictably fiery, the discussion sincerely engaged with the realities of the First Amendment in an America governed by a bloated and increasingly overbearing federal government. One particular issue, which echoed the general concern from the Democratic bench (which was invariably supportive of the Department of Health and Human Services policy) and spoke to the fundamental disagreements, was raised by Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-NY).

Rep. Towns said he would have liked to see women on the panel, because, he claimed, it would have provided interesting dialogue. Presumably, the insinuation was that female clergy or religious women would have a different (more liberal) take on the matter — especially, one infers, on women’s rights and women’s health.

First, this is irrelevant. A doctrinal or ritual disagreement between two members of a faith does not diminish the First Amendment claims of either. Just because religions may internally disagree does not matter: these are individual rights of conscience, not institutional rights of operation.

For some reason, it was felt that raising the writings of Thomas Jefferson would somehow provide a defense of the administration’s actions. Yet not only does his widely misunderstood Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, which speaks of a ‘‘wall of separation between church and state,’’ hardly support a policy which imposes the state on the church, but the composition that made Jefferson prouder was his Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. That Statute says: ‘‘That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical…[and] and infringement of natural right,’’ a statement which speaks directly to the current controversy.

The specious arguments by Democrats – the video is available for viewing – truly betrayed a total misunderstanding of religious faith.

Secondly, this is instructive. The more the federal government expands, the more it will encounter these thorny scenarios, and inevitably the federal government will begin to define the very parameters of a faith, and therefore what grievances can fall under the First Amendment. And, as was noted by several congressmen and panelists, this issue extends beyond religious institutions — as it is, after all, about individual liberty — to private employers who harbor religious convictions. They have the same religious freedoms to act as their consciences see fit, including in the realm of health insurance provision.

The general lesson here is that the federal government should be kept as far from such scenarios as possible, because the larger it grows, the more it will inevitably impinge on the liberties — religious and otherwise — it is intended to protect.

Sitting on the panel, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, a frequent contributor to COMMENTARY, indeed observed that the federal government, on this path, will be forced to side with one side over another, whereas in fact religious organizations should be free to define what the tenets of their faith are, and that the federal government should listen rather than impose itself.

By the way, Chairman Issa noted that Towns had had the opportunity to recommend a panelist. Towns’ recommendation was a man.



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