This weekend marks 221 years that Americans have enjoyed the blessings of a national Bill of Rights. On Dec. 15, 1791, the Commonwealth of Virginia became the 11th state to adopt the Bill of Rights, thereby providing the three-fourths majority necessary to amend the newly ratified Constitution.
Benefitting from the straightforward liberties and legal protections provided by the Bill of Rights, Americans might not always appreciate how those protections have helped the nation approach the status of what John Winthrop described "as a city upon a hill" with "the eyes of all people ... upon us." But even as our nation struggles with its tragedies and disappointments, people from around the world continue to seek America's blessings of freedom.
Americans may have become habituated to their constitutional liberties, but they must never be complacent about them. Today's threats to freedom may differ from those experienced by the drafters of the Bill of Rights, but freedom always poses a challenge to power — hence the need to guard it diligently.
Today, vigilance is particularly warranted to protect religious liberty. Although Americans enjoy the freedom to gather in religious worship, powerful secular interests seem increasingly annoyed by the way religious ideals, association and activity might stand in the way of their cherished aims.
Not surprisingly, impersonal and increasingly unaccountable bureaucracies often feature prominently in today's threats to religious liberty. Whether acting as rule-maker, licensor or accreditor, when a government bureaucracy clashes with individual conscience or the teachings of a religious community, it puts individuals in the untenable situation of choosing between conscience and obedience to law. In a country where the Constitution prohibits governments from prohibiting the free exercise of religion, law should actively seek to minimize such choices. Sadly, as the administrative state expands, so does the incidence of these untenable choices.
The most prominent example is the ongoing dispute over the Health and Human Services mandate that health insurance pays for contraception, sterilization and abortifacients, things that are objectionable to many people of faith who understand procreation reverentially rather than epidemiologically.
But it also happens in cases where licenses are revoked, employment terminated or degrees withheld all because a particular (and easily excepted) standard of care conflicts with religious conviction. We have seen it when family pharmacies have been threatened for not dispensing abortifacients, when nurses have been forced against their will to participate in abortions or when graduate students have been denied advancement because they won't do clinical work that violates a tenet of faith.
Thankfully, courts have sometimes intervened to provide relief to people of faith in such cases. But given how these cases are increasing, we fear that too often religious liberty is losing out when officious bureaucrats come up against risk-averse believers who are bullied out of their livelihood.
Ironically, schools and universities seem to create an increasingly hostile environment for people of faith (ironic because so many schools and universities, as well as our ethic of universal education, had religious roots). Parents are all too aware of how careful primary and secondary schools must be with any public displays of faith. But universities are now using potent recent precedent to eliminate faith-based organizations from their campuses.
Quite disturbing are efforts that marginalize or even criminalize humanitarian care, which for many Christians epitomizes discipleship. We have become aware of ways in which several effective and religiously motivated care providers have lost funding or faced litigation as care for the poor efforts have become regulated in deliberately secular terms. Did anyone, for example, ever think that the Fair Housing Act was meant to apply to temporary church-provided refuge for the homeless?
Because America as a nation never had an official church, the United States avoided the strident anticlericalism that characterized the European Enlightenment. But increasingly, some strains of secularism and humanism that have always been a part of the mix of American toleration of different beliefs have become increasingly shrill and strident. They have found a platform within an expanding administrative state, within some professional associations and within the academy. They are not trying to deny rights to worship, but they do pose an increasingly potent threat to the legitimacy of belief as a basis for decision-making in public or professional affairs. Those who cherish their constitutional liberties need to be aware of these threats.