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“Refusing To Comply With Laws”: The Strange New Meaning Of “Religious Freedom”

Whatever ultimately happens in various ongoing collisions between conservative clergy and laws to which they object, it is clear the former have already won a significant victory in convincing millions of Americans that “religious freedom” means the right to have one’s particular religious views explicitly reflected in public policy. That is definitely the position of the nation’s Catholic bishops, who contend they should be able to operate a wide range of quasi-public services and also enjoy the use of public subsidies, while refusing to comply with laws and regulations that contradict their religious or moral teachings.

I’ve argued in the past that what the bishops are actually seeking is not “freedom” but a sort of unwritten concordat—a broad zone of immunity from laws they choose to regard as offensive. Now there is nothing terribly unusual or inherently outrageous about this desire; Vatican diplomacy for centuries has focused on the establishment of such arrangements—though typically written rather than plenary—with a wide array of governments. It’s the idea that this sort of arrangement involves “freedom” rather than frankly acknowledged special privileges that’s novel. And it leads to some rather strange conclusions, viz. this conservative post celebrating an anti-Obama protest in San Francisco and identifying special concessions to religious groups as an example of “American exceptionalism:”

Friday, one thousand Bay Area Catholics gathered outside the Federal Building in San Francisco to celebrate America’s exceptional guarantee of freedom of religion, and defend against an unprecedented assault by the Obama Administration.

The rally was among the largest of over 100 protests by Catholics around the nation on the second (ahem) birthday of Obamacare.

From the podium, Northern California Catholic religious and secular leaders openly urged citizens to register to vote and cast ballots against President Obama in the general election, in what they called an end to “quiet conformity” by religious Americans….

The City Square, a Bay Area blog, described this religious backlash as nothing less than the opening of a second front in the “war for freedom”, alongside the Tea Party movement’s economic freedom agenda.

That is indeed an apt comparison, since the Tea Party, too, has a very special definition of “freedom.”

Still, it’s odd to hear people describe the kind of concessions to broad rights of religious self-regulation that are exceedingly common in countries without a constitutional history of church-state separation as peculiarly American.

And it’s not a view that’s been smiled upon very often by the official arbitors of the Constitution, the federal courts, as Sarah Posner recently explained at Religion Dispatches:

Conservative claims of infringement of religious freedom…are on shaky constitutional footing. Although Catholic Charities lost challenges to similar policies in state courts in California and New York, several Catholic and evangelical universities have sued HHS in federal courts around the country, charging that the contraception coverage requirement violates their religious freedom. While a federal court has yet to rule on the mandate, a ruling issued late Friday night demonstrates how the claim of infringement of religious freedom undermines the First Amendment’s prohibition on government establishment of religion.

In that case, the American Civil Liberties Union had challenged an HHS policy allowing the USCCB, which received funding under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, to refuse to refer victims of rape and sexual assault for contraceptive and abortion services. Although the Bishops and their Republican allies argue that requiring them to refer women and girls for reproductive health services amounted to a government interference with their religious freedom, Judge Richard Stearns held that allowing them to refuse to make these referrals amounted to an impermissible government endorsement of religion.

While that case would not require courts outside of Massachusetts to reach the same conclusion, or to reach the same conclusion in the lawsuits against the insurance coverage requirement, it does provide a roadmap for how a court would weigh a Free Exercise claim against an Establishment Clause claim.

Now some conservative Catholics, and many of their conservative evangelical allies (who have fully internalized David Barton’s revisionist “Christian Nation” theory that the Founders had no intention of fostering church-state separation) would view Judge Stearns’ decision as an exercise in “judicial activism” on the behalf of an aggressively “secularist” agenda. But like the Right’s redefinition of religious freedom itself, this point of view is decidedly recent in origin, and better described as “radical” than as “conservative” in spirit.

But that’s true as well of much of the American Right’s current ideological tendencies. Somehow or other, public programs as well as constitutional doctrines that the country has lived with peacefully since at least the New Deal are being denounced as involving aggressive, sinister, and even Satanic attacks on traditional liberties. That’s the connection between the protesters in San Francisco bearing “Obama the Judas of America” signs and their comrades carrying images of Andrew Breitbart outside the Supreme Court.


By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, March 27, 2012

March 29, 2012 Posted by | Catholic Bishops, Religion | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Religous Zealot”: Rick Santorum’s JFK Story Makes Me Want To Throw Up

“We establish no religion in this country, we command no worship, we mandate no belief, nor will we ever. Church and state are, and must remain, separate. All are free to believe or not believe, all are free to practice a faith or not, and those who believe are free, and should be free, to speak of and act on their belief.”

Rick Santorum teed off on a venerated former president Sunday morning for telling America that the separation of church and state was “absolute..” Was it the guy responsible for the above quote? No, that was Ronald Reagan, running for re-election in 1984 (h/t BB).

It’s Democrat John F. Kennedy who made Santorum “throw up,” the GOP presidential contender told ABC’s George Stephanopoulus, with his famous 1960 speech to Baptist ministers trying to assuage widespread fears about his Catholicism in order to become our first, and still our only, Catholic president. Santorum claims that JFK said that “people of faith have no role in the public square,” and urged ABC’s viewers to go read the speech for themselves and see.

So I did. (It’s here.) And not surprisingly, that’s not what Kennedy said at all.

First, here’s what Santorum said about Kennedy:

To say that people of faith have no role in the public square?  You bet that makes you throw up.  What kind of country do we live that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case? That makes me throw up and it should make every American…Now we’re going to turn around and say we’re going to impose our values from the government on people of faith, which of course is the next logical step when people of faith, at least according to John Kennedy, have no role in the public square.

I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.  The idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country. This is the First Amendment.  The First Amendment says the free exercise of religion.  That means bringing everybody, people of faith and no faith, into the public square.  Kennedy for the first time articulated the vision saying, no, ‘faith is not allowed in the public square.  I will keep it separate.’  Go on and read the speech ‘I will have nothing to do with faith.  I won’t consult with people of faith.’  It was an absolutist doctrine that was foreign at the time of 1960.

Let me start by saying: Santorum sounds literally hysterical. It’s a troubling sign of the GOP’s desperation that he’s virtually tied with Mitt Romney for the lead in the 2012 primaries. It pains me to actually have to take him seriously.

Of course, there’s no place in Kennedy’s speech where he said “people of faith are not allowed in the public square,” or anything close to that, and Santorum’s saying it three times doesn’t make it true. Here’s one key passage:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew— or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist. It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.

It is absolutely clear that Kennedy accepts “people of faith in the public square” – his goal is to make a place for people of every faith in our public life. Kennedy doesn’t even go as far as Christian right hero Reagan, who actually said the separation of church and state protects the right of non-believers, too.

Kennedy doesn’t say he won’t consult with faith leaders; he says he won’t take “instruction on public policy from the Pope.” In fact, he confided in and took advice from Archbishop Philip Hannan, whom he befriended when he was first elected to Congress; Hannan gave the eulogy at Kennedy’s funeral. Sadly, Hannan died last September, after a long career as Archbishop of New Orleans, or else he might be able to refute Santorum from experience.

Kennedy doesn’t promise to renounce his own Catholic beliefs or disobey his conscience, either:

If the time should ever come — and I do not concede any conflict to be even remotely possible — when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do the same.

Ironically, Kennedy spoke passionately on behalf of the Catholic Santorum’s right to be in the public square.

If this election is decided on the basis that 40 million Americans lost their chance of being president on the day they were baptized, then it is the whole nation that will be the loser — in the eyes of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, in the eyes of history, and in the eyes of our own people.

Santorum didn’t lose his chance to be president on the day he was baptized. He lost it – if he ever had it – when he lied about our first Catholic president, who just happened to be a Democrat. For shame.


By: Joan Walsh, Editor at Large, Salon, February 26, 2012

February 27, 2012 Posted by | Democracy, Religion | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Regurgitating Rick”: The Separation Of Church And State Makes Santorum Want To Vomit

Appearing on both ABC’s This Week and NBC’s Meet the Press this morning, Rick Santorum claimed that he “almost threw up” while reading President John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech on the separation of church and state. When asked by an incredulous George Stephanopoulos to respond, Santorum held firm: “I don’t believe in an America where separation of church and state is absolute,” something that Kennedy explicitly called for. “To say that people of faith have no role in the public square, absolutely that makes me want to throw up.” And since such a barrier disenfranchises the religiously-minded while protecting secular opinion, Santorum claims, it is also a violation of the First Amendment.

Except, that is not at all what Kennedy was advocating.

I believe in a President whose views on religion are his own private affair, neither imposed upon him by the nation, nor imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office. I would not look with favor upon a President working to subvert the First Amendment’s guarantees of religious liberty; nor would our system of checks and balances permit him to do so.

It’s right there. People’s First Amendment rights to practice and preach their own morals or religious beliefs should never be subverted, rather it is a preach-y president that Kennedy warns against, one who lets his (or her) own religious views affect the decisions they make in office. And, as Kimberley Strassel pointed out in the Wall Street Journal on Friday, that possibility is exactly what frightens voters most about Santorum, who seems perfectly willing to govern the entire country on the basis of his personally-held beliefs.

Mr. Santorum’s mistake is in telling people how to live. His finger-wagging on contraception and child-rearing and “homosexual acts” disrespects the vast majority of couples who use birth control, or who refuse to believe that the emancipation of women, or society’s increasing tolerance of gays, signals the end of the Republic.

And it is a vast majority of Americans. A recent study by the First Amendment Center found that 67 percent of Americans agreed that there should be a “clear separation of church and state.” This is at least one issue where Santorum seems to be badly out of stop with not only the rest of the country, but the march of history.


By: Andre Tartar, Daily Intel, February 26, 2012

February 27, 2012 Posted by | Constitution, GOP Presidential Candidates | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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