This summer, Americans of every faith and of none have been subjected to the propaganda machine of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and their “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign. By all measures, the fortnight fell flat. There was no religious persecution to decry; Catholics were too busy living their lives and planning their summer vacations to show up en masse for the bishops’ rallies; and the Affordable Care Act, the threat to religious liberty (according to the bishops), was upheld by the Supreme Court.
What we know, and what the bishops missed, is that religious freedom deserves more than a fortnight — and it’s about protecting more than the interests of a small group of men whose demands don’t reflect the needs and desires of the people they claim to represent.
Throughout history, good people — religious and secular — have been harried, hunted and harmed because of their religion or in the name of someone else’s. Irish Catholics lost the right to worship, and many their lives and livelihoods, to the English crown merely because they were Catholic. European Jews, for no reason other than their faith, were persecuted for centuries, and the Shoah remains an appalling testament to the capacity of human cruelty and religious repression. But religious persecution isn’t only history. If you adhere to the Baha’i faith in Iran today, you live in fear, monitored by a government that has a history of arresting, torturing and killing members of your faith. In Indonesia, the refusal to confess a belief in God will land you, badly beaten, in prison—in 2012.
Today’s American Catholic bishops would have us think they are the latest victims of religious persecution. Their claims denigrate the suffering of those who know the true meaning of that term. A few powerful conservative religious leaders, not joined by the majority of their faith or even of all their fellow bishops, have opened their coffers to sue the government to allow them to force others to live by their rules and to deny them what everyone else is guaranteed by our society. This isn’t about religious liberty. It’s a sham. And a dangerous one.
It’s been said that perception is everything, and it’s a lesson some American Catholic bishops have taken to heart. Claiming religious persecution and wrapping yourself in a flag on the Fourth of July in an election year is sure to get you in the paper. It doesn’t make what you’re saying true. Having failed to convince Catholics, clergy and laity, that the use of birth control is a moral offense, the bishops have set their sights on the law that guarantees healthcare to all Americans, and some have also openly criticized the president who signed it. This is what the bishops’ campaign is really about. You can be sure their bogus claims about religious liberty will be fanned by those who share these and other more political and partisan concerns, especially as the election draws nearer. They’ll say it’s about religious freedom, but it’s up to all of us not to fall prey to the tawdry abuse of a principle that is dear to us.
It is the rights and health of men and women of every faith and of none that hang in the balance with the bishops’ latest grandstanding. When the demands of a powerful religious minority are privileged over the rights of every citizen in a society, the results are never good. We can expect the same if we acquiesce to the bishops’ demands. Hard-working families will not be able to afford contraception; with a shrinking safety net, more children will grow up in poverty. Victims of sex trafficking will not receive unbiased counseling and will endure a forced pregnancy. Lesbian, gay and transgender people will be refused jobs and services; committed couples will be denied the rights and benefits of marriage. Men and women won’t be able to get their prescriptions filled if their employer or pharmacist judges the use or provenance of the medicine immoral. People at risk of contracting or spreading HIV won’t learn that condoms can help save their lives and the lives of people they love. Women who need abortions, even to save their lives, will be turned away. This is not what Americans want, and it’s not what America is about.
This isn’t a battle for religious freedom — at least in the way the bishops and their allies have styled it. Religious liberty is, and should be, sacred to us all. Equal justice under the law should be more than a slogan. We know that one’s conscience must lead each person to a judgment about how to act, and that conscience must not be subverted by someone else’s demand. It’s up to our leaders in government to ensure that these principles, the freedoms each American is guaranteed, are not compromised for a political gain by an influential minority — even, perhaps especially, when that minority claims a religious mantle.
For far too long, too many people have enjoyed neither the freedom to believe as they choose nor the freedom from living according to others’ beliefs. On Independence Day, we recall the American promise of both of these freedoms—for every single person in this country. It would be a shame to throw away this ideal just to appease a few disgruntled clerics who think the rules shouldn’t apply to them.