Religious liberty emerges as sensitive political issue
Earlier this month, in nearly identical benedictions at the two national political conventions, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York talked about the importance of religious liberty. He called it "the first, most cherished freedom bequeathed upon us at our Founding."
Few delegates in Tampa or Charlotte had any reason to challenge this language. The concept of "religious liberty" is enjoying a resurgence among both liberals and conservatives, and is referenced in both party platforms as something to be protected and respected.
What provokes argument is the question of just what religious liberty means. Lurking below the surface agreement is a complex and highly charged conflict about the role of religion in public life.
The conflict began last spring as a heated national debate about whether faith-based organizations should be required to cover birth control in their health plans. It is quickly spreading to a wide range of policy questions, many of which will likely be resolved at the state level.
One issue is whether governments and courts are trying to relegate believers of varying creeds to private expressions of faith within the walls of their places of worship. Nathan Diament, executive director of public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, says the correct definition of religious liberty includes "the protection and the valuing of individuals not just to believe what they want to believe but to act and live their lives in conformity and consistent with those beliefs." Critics of this understanding of religious liberty assert that faith should not be an excuse to be exempted from any public policy with which one disagrees.
The Ethics and Public Policy Center, a DC think tank, has formed an American Religious Freedom Program that is working to form bipartisan caucuses in all 50 state legislatures. One goal is to allow believers to opt out of providing professional services — such as photographing same-sex weddings or dispensing contraceptives at pharmacies — based on their personal religious convictions. Another is to make sure that any same-sex marriage legislation includes provisions stating that religious institutions are not legally required to allow the use of their property for same-sex weddings.
Debates are already in full force in some states. In May, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam vetoed a religious liberty bill passed by the legislature that would have allowed student groups at Vanderbilt University to exclude from membership those whose religious beliefs were inconsistent with the group's values. Vanderbilt is a private university, but it receives significant state funding.
In his veto note, Haslam said that it was "counter-intuitive to make campus organizations open their membership and leadership positions to anyone and everyone, even when potential members philosophically disagree with the core values and beliefs of the organization." Still, he said, "as someone who strongly believes in limited government, I think it is inappropriate for government to mandate the policies of a private institution."
Ballot measures dealing with religious freedom protections have emerged in three states this election cycle, with more expected once the Religious Freedom Program's state-based efforts ramp up. North Dakota rejected and Missouri approved ballot measures earlier this year broadening state constitutional religious freedom provisions.
In November, Florida will vote on a constitutional amendment that would prohibit discrimination against individuals and institutions on the basis of religious beliefs and remove a longstanding ban on public funding "in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution."
Supporters argue that the amendment is necessary to ensure that social service organizations with religious affiliations can compete on an equal footing with other organizations providing similar services.
Opponents argue that the amendment is a misleading attempt to pave the legal groundwork for parochial school vouchers and is unnecessary because in practice faith-based organizations already receive government funding to provide public services.
All of these issues are familiar to Cardinal Dolan and the organization he leads, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Many Catholics and religious conservatives were irked by the Obama administration's initial decision this spring requiring faith-based nonprofits whose teachings object to contraception to offer free birth control coverage to their employees.