Religious Freedom is a Two Way Street

Limiting the availability of contraception to women or the denial of civil rights to gays and lesbians on the basis of religious objections is itself a denial of religious freedom.  How Conservatives misunderstand the concept of religious liberty.

I was born a Jew.  Which really doesn’t mean a whole heck of a lot since I’ve never been the religious type.  Ever.  Yeah, sure I was Bar Mitzvahed and did the whole Sunday school thing as a kid.  But religion was never my thing.  It just never appealed to me.  My senior year in high school, as a member of my high school football team, I was furious with my parents for making me attend High Holiday services instead of going to school:  The school was having a pep rally at lunch for our football game that night, and some of my teammates were going to perform a skit dressed as cheerleaders (imagine a 250lb Korean offensive linemen in a cheerleader skirt!).  And I had to miss it.  Even worse, I had to miss the game which we won in dramatic fashion on a last second Hail Mary touchdown pass, the most exciting game and finish of my entire, brief football career, which I had to read about in the newspaper the next morning.

Religion has simply never been an important or valued part of my life.  It just never struck a chord with me.  To me Judaism is much more of a culture than it is a religion; a culture with which I have only a loose relationship.  Since I graduated from high school (which was a long time ago), you can probably count the number of times I’ve set foot in a synagogue on two hands.  And that doesn’t include the several times I’ve peered into the largely symbolic synagogue in Old Town San Diego just out of curiosity—the notion of a synagogue in 19th century San Diego seems so odd for some reason.

This also means that I am not a Christian of any kind:  Not a Catholic, Protestant, Methodist, Baptist………I am not “born again” and I never will be.  I am also not a Muslim, and have no desire to convert to Islam.  It is my personal view that religion tends to cause at least as many problems as it actually solves.

But I also recognize that organized religion plays a very prominent role in the lives of many, many people.  For many, religion provides a sense of purpose, belonging, and for some it brings a sense of peace.  There are those who have been rescued from the deepest depths of despair by a newfound or renewed faith in God.  And I respect that.  Good for them.

The problem I have—particularly in today’s political environment—is with the interpretation of the phrase “religious liberty” and the way it is used by Conservatives.  Apparently Democrats and Republicans have very different interpretations of what “religious liberty” or “religious freedom” actually means.

When we look at what’s going on in relation to the Republican presidential primaries and debates and the policies they are pushing—especially in the case of Rick Santorum—they’re talking about imposing a set of values, of religious beliefs, and making those the basis for our government.  When Rick Santorum criticizes the president for his “theology that’s not rooted in the bible” and for “trampling on religious liberties,” what he’s really talking about is the way he, Rick Santorum, views government; how government should work in his mind’s eye.  And his view of government is one in which his particular set of religious values rule the day.  He’s talking about governing not according to the rule of law, but according to the rule of the Christian Bible.  And that goes against the very founding principles of this nation.

Take the ridiculous contraception kerfuffle.  From the “liberal” side, it has absolutely nothing to do with “religious liberty” and everything to do with individual rights.  Virtually all employer supplied insurance plans provide full contraception coverage.  But allowing a company to pick and choose which services they do and do not want their employees to have access to amounts to discrimination.  By default it gives the employer the power to make medical decisions for their employees on the basis of their own religious moral code, forcing their beliefs on others who may or may not accept that particular view.  By denying contraception coverage, the employer is essentially injecting him or herself into the private lives of their employees.  These decisions sometimes have real world consequences.

In the testimony delivered to House Democrats, Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke told lawmakers about her friend, a fellow Georgetown Law student, who suffered from ovarian cysts that could have been treated by the use of birth control pills.  She was denied coverage for the pills due to the university’s affiliation with the Catholic Church, and doctors were eventually forced to remove one of her ovaries.  And before you ask, yes she did pay for the prescription out of pocket for a while (which can cost up to $3,000 per year), but the cost became too prohibitive, so she stopped.

When Conservatives complain about the HHS rule requiring contraception coverage, what they’re really complaining about is that the ability to impose their religious morals and beliefs on others is being stripped away.

That same metric can be applied to any number of issues:  Objections to gay marriage are almost exclusively made on religious grounds.  Outrage over the prohibition of prayer in public schools because the outraged consider it an infringement on their religious freedom.   (And by the way, kids can still pray in school should they so desire.  It simply cannot be required or facilitated by the school’s teachers or administration in a manner that has the effect of forcing all kids to participate whether they choose to or not.)  Criticisms over scientific principles taught in our schools, particularly evolution.  Policy preferences that favor a certain view of what a family is—including ideologies regarding a woman’s role in the workplace or that shame single mothers for being, well, single.  Attempts to make divorce more difficult to obtain.  All are not-so-veiled overtures about which religious principles are acceptable and which are not.

It’s important that we all pay attention to what’s being said in the political sphere and the underlying intent.  As David Corn pointed out:

If a politician views those who oppose his policies and ideas (say on birth control) as tools or partners of Satan (as opposed to simply being wrong), it could well affect how he responds to them and how he considers their argument. The president is supposedly the president of all Americans, even those who didn’t vote for him. But if the political opposition is part of (or moved by) a satanic force, then there’s not much point in granting it any respect—or seeking compromises. After all, all’s fair in spiritual warfare.

Freedom of religion is one of the very bedrock principles of the founding of our nation.  Religious oppression was the very reason the Pilgrims fled England in the first place.  The right of religious freedom of course means that all Americans have the right to their religious beliefs without interference or restriction (within reason; human sacrifice is generally frowned upon).  Just as importantly, however, it also means the right to freedom from religion.  The right to not accept any particular set of religious beliefs and live a secular life not based on religious guidance is just as inalienable as another’s right to be devoutly Catholic.

Enacting laws to prevent access to contraception or laws that make it okay for teachers and school administrators to lead prayers during class time is, therefore, a violation of religious freedom.  Enacting laws that do nothing more than allow the availability of contraception, however, doesn’t mean that anyone has to take advantage of that availability.  If contraception is against your religious principles, don’t use them.  Just like if you have a moral objection to pornography; don’t watch it.

Denying gays and lesbians their civil rights because homosexuality is against someone’s religious beliefs is itself a denial of religious freedom.  Meanwhile, making optional goods and services available is not a violation of anyone’s rights.  Denying them on the grounds of religious beliefs is.

So thanks but no thanks Rick Santorum, Michele Bachman, Sarah Palin, Ron Paul, and Newt Gingrich.  No thank you Franklin Graham.  I don’t want your religion.  I’m perfectly content without mine.

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