Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Are Religious Liberties The Civil Rights Issue Of Our Day?

In the US today it seems that the playing field between atheists and the religious has turned quite a bit. Atheists organizations like the American Atheists have a public campaign erecting billboards with messages of religious doubt; secular student groups are popping up all over college and high school campuses; blatant violations of the establishment clause are vehemently challenged by those wishing to preserve our secular tradition; and the numbers of people identifying themselves as "religious" continues to drop. It seems by all accounts that those who disbelieve are gaining the upper hand on matters of culture and policy, if they don't already have it.

Given this reality, the religious have been increasingly vocal about their concern that their religious freedom is now jeopardized by a more confident and militarized secularism. Rick Warren, senior pastor at Saddleback Church, recently said that “religious liberty is going to be the civil rights issue of the next decade" in an interview earlier this week. His remarks stem from the increasing secularism of our nation and what he considers government intrusions into religious convictions like the healthcare mandate requiring contraceptives in healthcare plans.

There are people on both sides of the aisle with differing views. Some atheists/secularists think religion still has the power and a privileged status in American culture and politics. While some theists believe that secularists in our country are overstepping the constitution and violating religious liberty with a progressive and godless agenda that is increasingly more powerful. It is hard to say who is right; America is a large country, and a patchwork of different laws and subcultures.

This central issue here is whether religious rights should supersede civil rights. If a religious institution is against homosexuality, does it have the right to discriminate against homosexuals? To those who think it does, I always use the following analogy. Imagine a Mormon who believes black people to be a cursed and inferior race, as traditional Mormonism teaches. Would we allow that person to openly discriminate against black people because of his religious convictions, or would the civil rights of black people take precedence? It seems obvious to me here, that civil rights trump religious conviction. I believe issues of homosexuality are much the same, but other cases are not so clear.

Contraception use is still for some religious institutions and people a matter of controversy, even though studies show that 99% of women in the US between the ages of 15-44 either have used or will use some form of contraception. I was as shocked as anyone else when contraception use became a raging national debate earlier this year. This issue is not so cut and dry. There is a part of me that wants to say that no one should be forced to fund contraceptives or anything on personal convictions, just like no one should force me to fund religious causes. I believe access to contraception is a civil right for women, and I also believe people with religious or personal convictions have the right to be free from being forced to violate their convictions. Now we have a problem.

But if I grant that religious institutions do not have to pay for contraception for their employers, then we are opening the door to many other religious sects refusing to fund anything they don't see as being in-line with their beliefs.

  • Imagine a Quaker who refuses to pay taxes because his tax dollars will fund military drone strikes that kill people, and this violates his convictions of non-violence. Would the government allow him to not pay taxes? I think not. 
  • Would we allow a business owned by Jehovah's Witnesses to not fund in their healthcare program blood transfusions in cases of an emergency to their employees because it violates their beliefs? The very idea seems ludicrous. 
  • Many religions have some bizarre rules that they take as personal convictions. Religious liberty gives you the right to observe these convictions but not impose them on other people. If I take away your funding for something because I oppose it, I will have just imposed my beliefs on you.
When civil rights are pinned up against religious liberty, I side with civil rights because to me, religious liberty is no excuse to be racist, sexist or homophobic. The bottom line is this, we cannot let the claims of religious "liberty" be used as an excuse to discriminate against long fought for civil rights. We have collectively fought too hard to let such achievements slip. But we must also recognize religious liberty for what it is: the freedom individuals have to impose religious convictions on themselves without government interference but not to impose those same things on other people. The first amendment outlines that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the exercise thereof". I do not see how providing contraceptives to those receiving healthcare from religious institutions violates the free exercise of a religion. The "free" exercise thereof, means your religion can be practiced, as long as it doesn't impinge anyone else's freedom. Now you might say "no one is stopping the sale of contraceptives" (well Rick Santorum would if he had his way), but nonetheless, if a necessary civil right exists, religion cannot be used as an excuse to discriminate against it.

One workaround to this dilemma would be if government provided a healthcare alternative to the private insurer and funded contraceptives. Then we wouldn't have to rely on our employers making healthcare choices for their employees. But something tells me that conservative tax payers would be up in arms over the idea that their tax dollars are funding contraception.

To address Rick Warren directly, I can understand how the future may look a bit uncomfortable for conservative religious people. Their beliefs will be increasingly at odds with the culture around them, and this will make them feel like a persecuted minority. They will either adapt or continue to shrink into eventual obscurity as morality progresses towards an ever more accurate description of a fair and just society.

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