Freedom of Religion: The Right to be Wrong.

Several years ago a friend shared a frustration about her job as a public school teacher: She felt that in the faculty lounge she had to pretend to be pro-life, lest she lose her job.  She worked in a conservative school district, and the other staff leaned to evangelical Christian (she did not).  She felt persecuted, and she didn’t think it was right.  I agreed.

Not because I was myself on the fence concerning abortion — I had always opposed it.  But because it seemed to me that if you are a government employee, you shouldn’t lose your job for agreeing with the laws of the government you serve.

[I should clarify here: She was not complaining that she couldn’t share her views with students — she had no desire or intention of doing that; given her subject and the ages of her students, abortion was not ever going to be discussed in the classroom in any way.  What she feared was that merely holding the beliefs that she did would cost her job.]

In studying history there comes an ugly moment when you suddenly understand how hopelessly immersed you are in your own culture.  Future people will wonder why you did not have more courage to stand for what you knew was right.  They will also wonder why you did not see how terribly wrong you were about principles that, to a later generation, seem entirely clear.  But the pull of your own time and place is too powerful.

That is how I feel about the law.

Product of late 20th-century USA, having grown up on patriotic songs and the Pledge of Allegiance and trips to Williamsburg and copies of the Constitution handed out at the bank in 1987 to commemorate the bicentennial . . . I’ve got this obsession with the Bill of Rights.  I am too late-century to believe it has been flawlessly administered, but I can’t shake the idea that it ought to be.

And enshrined in the 1st Amendment is the right to be wrong.  We call it freedom of religion.

Even though Congress is not supposed to make laws prohibiting the free exercise of religion, of course it does.  If your faith prescribes polygamy or ritual human sacrifice, no-can-do for you.  Morality informs the law, and no amount of arguing that your religion required you to embezzle that money will get you out of jail.  The majority will legislate the boundaries within which you may practice your beliefs.  The majority of course, being composed of people who are sometimes wrong.

(Example: Slavery.  Big mistake that one.  No slaves were emancipated by arguing in Confederate court, “My religion tells me I shouldn’t have to be a slave.”  But religious arguments — initially regarded as crazy fringe nutcase arguments — did eventually persuade the Union government to emancipate.  No comment on the timing.)

And then there’s the taxes.  We don’t get a discount for deciding we object to the nuclear weapons program or the latest foreign war.  I suppose you shut your eyes and pretend your particular contribution is all going to food stamps, and someone else’s cash covers the objectionable stuff.  Either that or you buy in to the whole “Whose face is on that coin?” thing.

[More limits on free exercise:  We can’t even get out of the draft selectively — either you’re 100% pacifist, or you sign on for all wars at all times — no concept of just warfare as a religious principle to be actively lived by able-bodied men of military age.]

So what’s the big deal with the reproductive-services-funding mandate?  Critics of the Church observe that the law is only asking for employers to pay for services that Americans overwhelmingly want, and that the medical industry considers perfectly good healthcare.  You’ve got to be some kind of crazy fringe nutcase to object to wholesome American goodness like Sterilization and Apple Pie.  (Correction: There might be a case for raising insurance rates on the people who eat the pie.)

And the answer is this: We grew up in late-20th America.  We know freedom of religion isn’t perfectly administered, but we still believe in it.  We practice it with compromises, but we do try to practice.  Jews who actually keep kosher are not therefore excused from paying all their taxes, just because Federal cafeterias serve those scary puffed-up Not Hebrew National hot dogs.  But we don’t therefore say the government has the power to require all employers everywhere pay for pork barbecue.

–> It would be understandable if some Jewish people found it objectionable to purchase a dozen bacon cheeseburgers for the guys at the sales meeting , even if there were other Jewish people who had no such reservations.  We’d get it.  We’d think that mandatory pork-purchasing — and being fined for failing to offer pork as a choice at the company cafeteria — was a stupid law.

We don’t think Chick-Fil-A should be required by law to be open on Sundays, even though other Christian businesses operate on those days.  Likewise B&H Photo has a constitutional right not to process sales from Friday sundown till Saturday sundown.  Even if there are employees who want to work during those times (and who need the hours!), or customers who wish to patronize the company during that time.  We have a right to eat on Sundays, but the government doesn’t mandate that all grocery stores and restaurants be open on those dates.

The trouble with the contraception-sterilization mandate is that our government has decided these items are more like clean water or public safety, and further, our government has decided that every private employer in the United States is now the public agency tasked with delivering these goods.

The majority of Americans do not believe contraception and sterilization are immoral.  They find the Catholic church is wrong wrong wrong on this matter.  That is fine.  But proper response is then, “Well, this is America.  You have a right to be wrong.

From the view of the majority, the  next question is: “What will happen if we let these crazy fringe minority of people be excused from directly purchasing items they find objectionable?

Our government says the answer is this:

Not directly purchasing your employees contraceptives would be like just giving them cash and saying, “Go buy your own bacon if it’s that important to you.”

And that would be wrong.  Because there are limits on the freedom of religion.  Your religion is known for not approving of certain products, but everyone else in America loves that product.  Look, a lot of the people at your own house of worship are discretely eating the bacon, and usually the Rabbi doesn’t say much about it . . . you’re a threat to order and morality.

You must not just give your employees the cash.  You must set up an account for unlimited purchases at Bacon Is Us.  Or be fined.  If you don’t like the stuff, don’t eat it.

Note that this is not about money.  It would be entirely reasonable for the HHS to require that conscientious objectors simply pay their employees the necessary amount of cash to cover the cost of these services.  That’s Living Wage 101, which the Catholic Church has been trying to explain since before ever the HHS saw light of day.

Employees could then purchase however much bacon contraception and sterilization coverage they wanted.   Exact same amount of employer outlay.  Exact same amount of contraception dispensed and reproductive powers eliminated.  Only, it would respect the right of American citizens to practice their own religion.


6 thoughts on “Freedom of Religion: The Right to be Wrong.

  1. I was doing really well with this, until I found someone who truly felt no shame in asking a Jewish grocer to sell pork. *blink* Further into the realm of crazy is the fact that she’s a part of a subset whose rights are frequently and flagrantly violated, or rather, not even granted. So wouldn’t she be in favor of keeping individual rights? Nope- she values the greater good more than her own rights. To which I have to believe that she doesn’t have any moral base of her own to defend, and then I’m just sad. Sad for her, sad for the nation, really, really sad.

    Caucuses are tomorrow. Should be interesting.

  2. “I was doing really well with this, until I found someone who truly felt no shame in asking a Jewish grocer to sell pork”

    Yes. This is a problem. I believe you have hit the nail on the head.


    And let’s clarify: I would find it annoying to have to go find an insurance rider because my (hypothetical) JW employer had a thing against blood transfusions, and I want them covered. But that’s part of living in a free country, is getting over the annoyance and letting people live their lives.

    Yet another reason to create group insurance pools that aren’t tied to specific employers.

  3. “I was doing really well with this, until I found someone who truly felt no shame in asking a Jewish grocer to sell pork.”

    I used to belong to the Jewish Community Center – they had a great gym. An intern who worked there was doing a school project, trying to find out how many people wanted the JCC to be open on Saturday. “Doesn’t bother you?” she asked. “Don’t you think they should be open on Saturday?”

    I told her that Jews worship on Saturday and I knew the JCC would be closed on Saturday when I joined. “I don’t have to pay to come here if I don’t like how they run it,” I told her.

    Not to mention you would never find me in a gym on a weekend anyhow. During the week is bad enough.

    1. “Not to mention you would never find me in a gym on a weekend anyhow. During the week is bad enough.”


      But yes, the other attitude seems to be the problem. The Culture of Me Me Me wins out over respect for other’s differences. I guess it makes sense once you put together all the pieces. In a sad way. I wonder why I feel so alienated from popular culture.

      (Except: Mr. Monk. My FIL gave us season 1. We are addicts.]

  4. Hmm. I was irked by comments on the Rosary event, and wrote the following. Wouldn’t it be nice if it went viral?

    In a top secret meeting last week, a group of federal lawmakers met to consider how to improve their approval ratings. The conclusion they came to was that the best idea was to be sure that the national pastime of baseball was preserved, that they make it easy for all citizens to enjoy, and that no one would be deprived of the need to share peanuts and crackerjacks in a stadium with their companions. In order to achieve this goal, the federal government stated that you will not have the right to pick your favorite professional baseball team. You will be assigned your local team, and you will not be allowed to support basketball, football, rugby, soccer, or hockey, either.
    If you feel that this is a really, really, BAD way of getting things done, if you’ve ever been a fan of any other sport, if you just really don’t CARE about baseball, share with ten friends. Write your congressman. PROTEST. They can’t take away our right to enjoy a good game of curling!!!! Some people NEED football! The feds need to leave personal choice to us, and let baseball fans support whoever they want. Not everyone likes baseball, and that’s the way it should be.

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