We live in a day when many longstanding, widespread and deeply held moral presumptions are no longer widespread or deeply held. One of the most crucial of these now-challenged presumptions is the right to live one’s faith according to the dictates of one’s conscience.
This nation was founded as a wild effort of Christian reformers to free themselves of Old World godlessness and establish a New Jerusalem in America. This state, in turn, became a haven for pioneers who, 167 years ago this week, sought refuge from violent religious persecution.
While religious beliefs have always differed by sect and denomination, many who believe in God find it is hard to remember a time when basic rights to religious freedom have been as openly contested in American society as they are today.
This past Thursday, for example, the U.S. Senate narrowly defeated an attempt to undercut the recent Supreme Court decision affirming the religious freedom of the retail chain Hobby Lobby. As a matter of sincerely held religious conscience, Hobby Lobby’s owners objected to paying for a handful of administratively mandated contraceptives that prevent implantation of a fertilized egg. We applauded the high court’s ruling and said that it “accentuates this country’s longstanding commitment to religious liberty.”
Contrast last Thursday’s close call with the original vote on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993. The late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, rallied their colleagues to support the measure 97-3, which unanimously passed the House and was championed by President Bill Clinton.
To interfere with the free exercise of religion, RFRA says, the government must both demonstrate a compelling interest and show that it is using the least restrictive means to achieving that purpose. The Supreme Court held that the government did not meet its burden in the case of a religiously motivated family-run business that objected to the contraceptive mandate. Not all religious claims will meet that test.
Senators pressing to curtail RFRA seem to be taking the view that religious practice is intruding upon other claims for liberty. Many commentators believe that the Hobby Lobby dispute will be tame compared to the battle between religious freedom and claims of those seeking same-sex marriage.
Whether or not the U.S. Supreme Court accepts Utah’s efforts to uphold the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman, it is clear, in the words of University of Virginia professor Douglas Laycock: “The conflict between religious liberty and gay rights is bad for both sides and dangerous for the American tradition of individual liberty.”
The test of wills stems from a contest of self-definition. Many who believe in God define themselves, in large part, through a religious identity. For others, sexual identity has become a defining characteristic of how they see themselves. How can both identities be reconciled in the public square?
The respectful coexistence each identity seeks will come through recognizing the dignity intrinsic to all men and women.
The word “dignity” captures the desire all have to live in an environment free from discrimination, intimidation or harassment.
In the Christian tradition, the concept of dignity stems from the creation of man and woman in the likeness of God. During the Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council in 1965, its Declaration of Religious Freedom was titled “Dignitatis Humanae (Of the Dignity of the Human Person).”
This document teaches an important truth: “It is in accordance with their dignity as persons — that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility — that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth.
“However, men cannot discharge these obligations in a matter keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore, the right to religious freedom has its foundation [in the very nature of personhood.]” This natural religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae continues, “continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligations of seeking the truth and adhering to it.”
Those who seek to follow the rocky road to religious freedom must remember that coercion and mistreatment will not deliver anyone to a promised land. Knowing something about persecution from their own lived experience or the historical experience of their forbears, they themselves must abhor persecution of any kind while claiming equal dignity for their own conscientious life choices.
Laws can be framed in such a way that they balance the free exercise of religion with respectful coexistence of those with differing values. We believe that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, judiciously applied, helps to achieve such a balance, while helping to avert zero-sum conflicts that would impinge on any other’s dignity.