For many liberals these days, defining religious liberty is more a matter of circumstance and fashion than principle. Thus, when a plan was put forward to build a Muslim community center and mosque in the shadow of New York’s Ground Zero, the mere expression of concern such a decision was insensitive to the victims and families of the 9/11 attacks was taken as a sign that opponents of the project sought to repeal the First Amendment. The right of prisoners to practice their faiths is often allowed to trump other concerns. The Supreme Court has made it imperative the government must have a compelling reason to impinge in any way on the right of believers to observe religious rights and customs. But this belief in the value of diversity only goes so far. Thus, when President Obama chooses to force Catholic institutions to pay for services for their employees that the principles of the Church forbid, the government’s abrogation of their religious freedom was seen by many of the same liberal commentators who applauded the ground zero mosque as being of no consequence.
That’s the conundrum the president’s anti-Catholic fiat exposed, and the reaction to it from much of our chattering classes is hardly encouraging for those who worry about the government’s willingness to trample on the rights of believers. One needn’t agree with the Vatican’s stand on contraception to understand that if the law regards the government health care agenda as being more sacred than the rights of Catholics not to be forced to subsidize practices they abhor, then the principle of religious liberty in our country truly is in danger.
That’s a conclusion many in our chattering classes refuse to accept. In noting the comments of Republican presidential candidates on the issue in an editorial today, the New York Times put the words “religious liberty” in quotes as if the mere notion that the church’s rights were imperiled was something of a joke.
The reason for this is no secret. For liberal secularists, church teachings about contraception are antiquated and contrary to the progressive spirit of the age. If the church thinks condoms and morning-after pills are wrong, then so much the worse for it. Their beliefs are to be suppressed largely because they are seen as wrong and therefore not worthy of protection let alone tolerance. The triumphal tone of many Church critics betrays a sense that a faith hierarchy that is seen as conservative and/or patriarchal is being put in its place.
Supporters of the president have tried to portray his decision as being made in defense of workers who are being deprived of essential health coverage. But this is a subterfuge. Health care plans vary. Anyone who views birth control benefits as necessary to their terms of employment need not work for a church institution. But the point of this measure is about a political agenda in which free contraception becomes a universal right, not the particular needs of individuals.
While liberals scoff at the idea Obama is waging a war on Catholics, there is little doubt the government’s refusal to accommodate the Church represents a clear choice about the legitimacy of its beliefs. As Politico notes in its analysis today, this may come back to haunt Obama in November as white working-class Catholics who voted for him in 2008 abandon his cause in 2012. But the more important point to be made here is if Catholic rights can be trampled in this fashion, so can those of other faiths even if their liberal adherents think they are untouched by this controversy. Religious liberty either exists for all or for none.