Eaton: Religious freedom under government assault
By Fran Eaton February 14, 2012 8:10PM
Updated: March 16, 2012 8:16AM
This raging controversy over the Obama administration mandating that Catholic organizations pay to provide contraceptives, abortifacients and sterilizations for their female employees has really gotten under my skin.
At first, I was upset because it’s linked to Obamacare, an unprecedented government power grab over the most private issues Americans face — their health care. Then I thought about how it protects women’s rights over those of their unborn babies.
But the issue of government abusing its authority to compel religious institutions to abandon their foundational beliefs was what made me understand why this controversy affected me so deeply. Fighting such disrespect for our right to freely exercise religion is part of my heritage, something I had almost forgotten.
Our U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”
Those words reflect why Rhode Island was established in the late 1600s. Roger Williams, the state’s founder, was a radical free religionist, and one of my ancestors, Thomas Angell, traveled from Liverpool, England, with Williams’ family. Angell was at Williams’ side as he set up the town of Providence and the First Baptist Church of America.
Williams’ colony set the way more than 100 years before the Constitution required religion’s free exercise in the New World. Today, America’s Judeo-Christian charity that embraces different faiths, even those that reject the Old and New Testament teachings, is unique. Americans don’t imprison, torture or behead non-believers as religious sects do in other countries. We accept their rejection of our faith as a challenge to live lives that make our religion and our God appealing.
But Williams’ example of tolerance is being tested today by the federal government. The question is whether law-abiding citizens should allow the government to impose its anti-religious belief system on them.
At this particular point in history, it’s Catholics who are under attack for believing that all children are a gift from God and that none should be purposely rejected via contraceptives, abortifacients or sterilization. Catholic doctrine rejects the notion that church members should support, pay for or approve of something that the church implicitly abhors.
I stand with the Catholic Church’s leadership on this issue, although I acknowledge that the faithful are divided. A Rasmussen poll says 59 percent of Catholics disapprove of the Obama administration’s recent birth control rule, while 40 percent at least somewhat approve.
In Christian charity, Catholics support good health care for everyone. They have led the world in health care — establishing hospitals and clinics worldwide and being leaders in fighting such scourges as leprosy and AIDS. Their efforts should be appreciated and honored, not scorned and berated as the Obama administration is doing.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACT) violates the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment by forcing individuals to pay an abortion insurance premium in defilement of their religious beliefs, according to a legal brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court by the Life Legal Defense Foundation, the Bioethics Defense Fund and others.
Dana Cody, executive director of the Life Legal Defense Foundation, said ACT includes “inescapable requirements that all individuals who are enrolled in a health plan — either on their own or by their employer — include abortion services in the coverage. This will encumber the conscience and free exercise rights of millions of Americans by imposing an unconstitutional burden.”
Those are words that grind. How can a leader swear to uphold the Constitution while being sworn into office in January 2009, and three years later outrageously wage war against it?
While this religious war is being fought nationally, Catholics in Illinois already lost a crucial battle over religious freedom. They’ve closed adoption and foster care agencies rather than succumb to the state’s demand to abandon their religious beliefs over the sanctity of marriage. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan fought against her church’s doctrine, demanding that Catholic Charities either accept same-sex couples into its adoption and foster care lists or be severed from state funding. As a result, thousands of innocent vulnerable children in Catholic Charities’ foster care system now face relocation trauma.
That loss of religious freedom over civil unions could be the foothold for future First Amendment challenges. What will happen when Illinois demands that Catholic hospitals abandon their sanctity-of-life doctrine and perform abortions and sterilizations or lose their public assistance? What if the state requires that they offer facilities for assisted suicide? Will Catholic schools risk a loss of funding if they continue to teach moral purity and sexual abstinence?
Where exactly are we headed?
Religious freedom was what the Pilgrims sought when they sailed on the tiny Mayflower for months to reach the New World. Without such freedom, America as we know it will be no more.
Fran Eaton is a Southland resident who co-founded and edits the conservative political blog, illinoisreview.com