Last month, after the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops announced plans to promote a “Fortnight for Freedom” this summer that would focus on the defense of religious liberty, it was an open question as to whether they would wind up standing alone after the Obama administration sought to force their institutions to pay for insurance coverage for practices forbidden by their faith. Other faith groups may well decide it is dangerous for them to stand up for religious liberty because of the unpopularity of the church’s stand on contraception. In particular, Jewish organizations, normally so zealous in defense of individual rights and religious freedom, will be seen as bellwethers.
So far, the answer is at best mixed, with only those religious groups identified with a more conservative viewpoint such as the Rabbinical Council of America, the religious body associated with the Orthodox Union, backing the church’s stand while the far more influential Jewish Council on Public Affairs, the umbrella body for Jewish Community Relations Councils across the country, backed Obama’s unsatisfactory compromise proposal rather than the church’s defense of its rights.
This week, as Alana noted yesterday, Roman Catholic dioceses, schools, social service agencies and other institutions filed lawsuits in 12 federal courts, challenging the Obama administration’s dictate that they provide coverage for contraception in their health insurance policies. If they were to protect their rights, they had no choice but to go to court. The challenge will be affected by the outcome of the Supreme Court’s decision on the legality of ObamaCare, but if all or parts of that legislation are upheld, the plaintiffs will be asking the courts to uphold their rights under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which forces the government to provide a compelling reason to force believers to violate their faith.
The administration has sought to marginalize the church’s position by launching a political campaign aimed at portraying the Republicans as waging a war on women because of conservative support for the church’s position. That has enabled some to claim that backing for the church is a partisan stand against the president. But this is looking at the issue through the wrong end of the telescope. It is not the administration that sought by means of ObamaCare to compel church institutions to pay for contraception that started this unnecessary fight, nor the bishops who would be quite happy to stay out of the political line of fire.
Having framed the issue as one in which backing for the church is tantamount to voicing opposition to the president or as being opposed to contraception — something the vast majority of Americans, including most Catholics, support–the administration may think it can defend its stance with impunity. But it is important for groups that would under other circumstances not hesitate to defend religious institutions from government compulsion not to leave the church to face the might of the government alone.
One needn’t oppose the president’s re-election or endorse the Vatican’s stance on contraception in order to understand that a ruling against the church would grant the government nearly unlimited power to restrict religious freedom. In the weeks and months ahead as this issue continues to be debated, it is vital that more faith groups rally around the church and make it clear to the administration and the courts that when it comes to protecting First Amendment rights, the church does not stand alone.