Freedom of religion is not a right-wing thing

The debate about Obama’s ruling on birth control in healthcare packages shows that many liberals are now worryingly sniffy about religious liberty.

Nathalie Rothschild

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Why, in America, has the defence of religious freedom become primarily associated with shrill bishops and right-wing Republicans? After all, it is a liberal principle and ought to be a central tenet of any tolerant society worthy of its name. Yet in the storm caused by the Obama administration’s new rule requiring employers to provide their staff with access to free birth control as part of their healthcare packages, religious freedom has been either exploited as a political trump card or denounced as an oppressive tool.

On one side, powerful Catholics and Republican presidential hopefuls are decrying Obama’s rule as an assault on religious rights, because it does not exempt Church-owned institutions from having to provide access to birth control. On the other side, liberals are denouncing misogynistic bishops and right-wingers for trying to clamp down on women’s rights to make reproductive choices. Among those opposing Obama’s mandate, many are all too willing to ignore the desires of those they supposedly represent. And among those supporting the mandate, many are all too willing to sacrifice religious freedom at the altar of right-wing bashing.

As it happens, many Christians don’t seem to see the contraception coverage mandate as an infringement on their freedom of conscience. According to a poll released this week, Catholics in the US are even more likely than Americans in general (52 to 49 per cent) to support requiring religiously affiliated employers to provide contraception coverage. Among white, mainstream Protestants, 50 per cent want the coverage, though only 38 per cent of evangelical Protestants support it. Moreover, the new policy exempts houses of worship and religious non-profits that primarily employ and serve people of faith.

The debate has mainly focused on the consequences for Catholic-affiliated hospitals and schools. The Roman Catholic Church, which opposes the use of contraception, has come out in vocal opposition to Obama’s mandate and Republican presidential hopefuls have denounced it as a violation of the religious conscience of Catholics. Yet, on a day-to-day level, many of these Catholic-affiliated institutions are not very different in character to their secular counterparts, and they attract large numbers of secular and non-Catholic staff, students and patients. Therefore, many have seen the bishops’ appeal to religious freedom as nonsensical and potentially damaging for the large numbers of women at these institutions who would be denied the contraceptive coverage other women benefit from.

But even if the bishops are out of touch, and even if the GOP candidates are just using this issue to get one over on Obama, don’t they also have a point? After all, whether or not a religiously affiliated hospital or a university employs non-Catholics, it is still founded on religious principles that could conflict with administering, or helping women to access, contraception. Should the government really take it upon itself to force a reform of such principles?

The concept of freedom of religion is tied to the idea that the state ought not to be an arbiter either of what can or cannot be believed. In other words, it should be religion-neutral. A secular state, separated from the church, is one which neither promotes one faith above others, nor dictates what is and is not permissible to believe. Freedom of religion is about the freedom to practice one’s beliefs without fear of persecution or state diktat.

And so, no matter how regressive their outlooks, religious associations should be free to establish any terms of change to their religious practices for themselves. Perhaps it is high time that Catholic bishops stopped trying to deny Catholic women access to contraception, since most of them seem to want it and since it has been a crucial victory in the struggle for women’s rights. But imposing such a reform from the outside would constitute a trampling on religious people’s autonomy. If we flipped things around, and had a government that used religious arguments to deny institutions the right to help women access contraception, then that would also be an infringement on individuals’ rights and a breaching of the separation between religion and state.

Although this separation is, in its foundation, a liberal principle, and was intended as a safeguard against oppression, today it has unfortunately come to be looked upon as a right-wing, conservative thing. Judging from their response to Obama’s ruling, where many of them simplistically say that all institutions must obey, it seems today’s liberals have abandoned the principle of religious freedom because they are generally unwilling to defend other people’s rights to live by their own worldview, especially if that worldview clashes with their own.

Things could be very different. As one commentator points out, the issue of employers’ ‘conscience’ could be avoided if the US had a different system of health provision. As it stands, employers are required to provide basic healthcare packages for staff and the Obama administration now wants to include contraception provision in those packages. Therefore, women’s free access to contraception has been dependent upon their employers’ attitudes. It is understandable that proponents of women’s right to access birth control if they so wish (a right that ought to be universal) oppose barriers to unequal access. Yet, hard as it may be to accept it, in a genuinely tolerant society private and religiously affiliated institutions that do not want to administer contraception should not be forced by the state to do so.

Nathalie Rothschild is an international correspondent for spiked. Visit her personal website here. Follow her on Twitter @n_rothschild.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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