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Posted by on Apr 12, 2012 in At TMV | 17 comments

Freedom of Religion Is Not Absolute

Rick Santorum made separation of church and state an issue in his campaign for the presidency, denouncing John F. Kennedy’s commitment to that principle and using freedom of religion as a rallying cry. The uproar regarding coverage for contraception further highlighted the continuing schism in America over those wanting absolute freedom to follow their religious beliefs and those accepting that when a conflict exists, civil law must override religious precepts.

Previous court battles have affirmed that freedom of religion in America is not an absolute right. Though the First Amendment to the Constitution prohibits Congress from any actions favoring the establishment of a religion or “prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” there have been a number of instances where the general welfare has taken precedence over religious practices, forcing a religion to change its edicts. Since the state is responsible for regulating harmful conduct, if there is disagreement between a religion and the state over some element of religious practices, civil law must be observed. Of course, the difficulty arises in determining which religious practices may be detrimental to society.

One prominent example of a conflict between church and state, where the Supreme Court ruled that civil law must be followed, involved the Mormon practice of polygamy. In 1862, the Morrill Act was passed by Congress prohibiting plural marriages. The Court upheld the conviction of a Mormon in 1878 for violating the law which he said had interfered with his religious duty. However, polygamy continued to be openly practiced by Mormons with the argument that it was protected by the First Amendment. Finally, in 1890, the president of the Mormon Church acknowledged that civil law had primacy over church law and the practice of polygamy was ended by the church, aside from some fundamentalist splinter groups. Similarly, the Muslim practice of allowing up to four wives under Islamic law is illegal in the U.S.

Another area where civil law was in dispute with religious officials was over the handling of pedophilia by the Catholic Church. For most of the 20th century (and past centuries) the church dealt with child molestation by priests as a sin, rather than as a criminal offense. When a case of pedophilia was discovered, the name of the perpetrator was generally not reported to the civil authorities, with disciplinary measures meted out by the church. Often, this consisted of transfer to another position where the perpetrator might still have contact with children. Or a life of prayer and penance might be ordered. It was only after a series of scandals, numerous suits and some criminal trials in recent decades that the church agreed to treat pedophilia as a criminal offense, allowing an arm of the state to decide on punishment.

It is clear that religious freedom is not absolute in America. However, two questions must be answered by the courts in dealing with conflicts between church and state. One is how egregious the issue in contention is to the beliefs of a particular religion and the second is whether favoring the religion would contravene the general good to a sufficient degree to harm society. On the issue of contraception, it is clear that women’s health will be impacted if coverage is not available for low-income recipients. It also seems that when the Obama administration allowed church-affiliated organizations to opt out if they so desired and have the insurance companies pay for contraception, the church’s objections had been met.

We live in a pluralistic society where conflicts between what are considered civil rights or social needs and religious beliefs are constantly playing out. Finding a middle ground when dealing with galvanizing issues, such as abortion or same-sex marriage appears to be nearly impossible. On the other hand, the availability of contraception for all women seemed to have been settled decades ago and yet has come back to haunt us again. It is unfortunate that when the nation faces so many serious economic problems, the two political parties must devote so much time and energy to an issue like contraception coverage which should have been a minor administrative decision.

To truly insure freedom of religion for everyone, the wall separating church and state must remain in place as a bedrock principle of American democracy.

Resurrecting Democracy

em>A VietNam vet and a Columbia history major who became a medical doctor, Bob Levine has watched the evolution of American politics over the past 40 years with increasing alarm. He knows he’s not alone. Partisan grid-lock, massive cash contributions and even more massive expenditures on lobbyists have undermined real democracy, and there is more than just a whiff of corruption emanating from Washington. If the nation is to overcome lockstep partisanship, restore growth to the economy and bring its debt under control, Levine argues that it will require a strong centrist third party to bring about the necessary reforms. Levine’s previous book, Shock Therapy For the American Health Care System took a realist approach to health care from a physician’s informed point of view; Resurrecting Democracy takes a similar pragmatic approach, putting aside ideology and taking a hard look at facts on the ground. In his latest book, Levine shines a light that cuts through the miasma of party propaganda and reactionary thinking, and reveals a new path for American politics. This post is cross posted from his blog.

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Copyright 2012 The Moderate Voice
  • CStanley

    The simple solution is to avoid the conflict altogether by getting employers out of the health insurance loop. That would fix so many other problems in pur healthcare system anyway, and would completely avoid any issues of conscience over individuals’ healthcare choices.

  • slamfu

    That would solve this particular issue, but that would mean what? A single payer setup or we just ban companies from providing insurance for their employees?

  • CStanley

    There wouldn’t be a need to ban the practice, slamfu- just change the tax code.

  • Rcoutme

    Mr. Levine ‘almost’ tripped up the way most of the advocates for the Obama Adm. plan do. He actually ‘safe-sided’ his claim by suggesting that, “it is clear that women’s health will be impacted if coverage is not available for low-income recipients.”

    Now…as for the idea that the Catholic Church is trying to restrict the USE of contraceptives, that is just stupid; they aren’t. They just have a problem with having to be the ones to pay for them. A way of eliminating that would be for them to have to provide tax money which, in turn, went to pay for health care for their employees. THAT would be an acceptable solution.

    The reason that the ‘insurance pays’ solution is not acceptable is because the Church would be required to BUY THAT INSURANCE! In other words, they would have a mandate to purchase something that purchases contraceptives. That still doesn’t cut it!

    Taxes are not a purchase–they are a levy. If you are required to pay certain taxes for your employees (e.g. FICA) then so be it. What those taxes get used for is up to the government. Thus, early Christians were told to pay their taxes even though those taxes were being used to crucify Christians! The reason: they were also being used to build roads, keep barbarians at bey, etc.

    However: keep in mind, the Romans did not make the Catholic Church pay to buy crosses. The Church would have refused. In fact, the primary reason given (in legal terms) for Christians being killed by the Romans was that they refused to sacrifice to the Emperor. In other words, they would go to their deaths–willingly–rather than purchase an animal to be sacrificed to the Emperor. At the same time, they were paying their taxes.

  • zephyr

    “To truly insure freedom of religion for everyone, the wall separating church and state must remain in place as a bedrock principle of American democracy.”

    Absolutely right.

  • Zzzzz

    The reason that the ‘insurance pays’ solution is not acceptable is because the Church would be required to BUY THAT INSURANCE! In other words, they would have a mandate to purchase something that purchases contraceptives. That still doesn’t cut it!

    That isn’t quite right. They pay for the insurance, then the employee uses the insurance to purchase contraceptives. This is not different than them paying the employee, and the employee using their salary to purchase contraceptives. They ARE using this argument to control their employees. That IS the point.

  • Rcoutme

    No Zzzzz, the mandate is for the contraceptives to be ‘free’ (or more correctly that the insurance must cover the entire cost). To say nothing of the fact that most insurance plans have co-pays for pharmaceuticals, it also ignores some of the most basic questions.

    1. Since condoms prevent both pregnancy and spread of disease, why not cover those as well?

    2. Why not insist that all insurance companies cover the cost of gym membership for all customers?

    3. Since some of the pills/devices prevent implantation of the fertilized zygote by unnatural means, the Church would regard that as abortion. Some pharmaceuticals could be used for euthanasia. Is the Church supposed to accept having to pay for these as well, in spite of a 2000 year history of opposition (yes, it was spelled out way back then).

    4. As for them ‘using this argument to control their employees,’ if and only if the specific agency/entity is accepting government money over and above fee for service should the government have ANY say in how that money should be spent. Thus: to suggest that a Catholic hospital must perform abortions or offer abortofacients will only serve to cause the bishops to close the hospitals.

    If you doubt their resolve, consider: in my state, MA, the Catholic Church used to match up children and adoptive parents. They were about the only entity that had any luck in placing older children with adopting parents. The state mandated that, if they were to continue placing children, that they would have to place children with same-sex couples.

    The Church agency used to direct same-sex couples to other agencies that could help them. That wasn’t good enough for our idiot law-makers! They decided that the Church was bluffing, or if not, that they would rather hurt the older children than have the Catholic Church place them with loving families.

    End result: Catholic Church does not facilitate adoptions in MA anymore.

    The Catholic Hospitals will shut down rather than violate dogma. Dogma will not change; it never has.

  • zephyr

    Today’s catholic church leaders share too many of the values their 15th century predecessors did. Where is the 21st century equivalent of Martin Luther?

  • DaGoat

    I don’t think the examples chosen by Dr Levine are completely applicable. What the government is trying to do is force the Catholic Church to commit an act it considers sinful. I was trying to think of something comparable and what I came up with was forcing a Muslim woman to remove her veil in order to get an ID, an ID of course being required for many benefits including voting in some places. The Muslim woman is free to refuse to remove the veil, the consequence being she may lose benefits. The Catholic Church is free to refuse to pay for contraceptives, the consequence being their government contracts are voided.

    The practical problem I see is that the government needs the Catholic hospitals a lot more than they need the Muslim women to get IDs. People can talk cavalierly about the Catholic church getting out of the hospital business, but the reality is healthcare would greatly suffer if they close and to try to change ownership of the hospitals will take a long time.

    The ethical problem I see is that there should be a darn good reason for the government to force people to commit acts they consider sinful, especially in this case where the precedent has been for the church not to provide such insurance.. In the case of the Muslim women the justification is public safety. In the case of the Catholic church the justification is public health. You could make arguments either way.

  • slamfu

    Its galls me no end that somehow the Catholic Church is holding up the debate on national healthcare. I get it, they don’t want to pay for a service that goes against their beliefs, even if 98% of their women use it anyways. But they seriously need to get their middle ages BS outta this issue, work to find a compromise, or do something to WORK WITH US on this issue. No one is going to force anyone to use contraception or abortion if they don’t want, they will get to practice their faith in peace, but for that institution to go out of its way to make this more difficult than it has to be really pisses me off.

  • moonlitknight

    According to the National Conference for State Legislatures, 28 states have laws requiring insurers that cover prescription drugs to also cover contraception. Twenty have exemptions, generally for religious beliefs.

    The bishops weren’t screaming about this until the ACA started to kick in and it became an issue that they could exploit on a national level in an election year. This is about politics not religion.

  • Rcoutme

    The bishops had been assured by Obama that the issue would not “kick in.” He gave a signing statement to that effect. That was why they supported his legislation.

    As I mentioned above, the way to “work with us” would be to cover the costs via taxes. That would work. Telling them to pay for contraceptives directly (or to purchase a policy that does so) is not acceptable.

    Oh…and just how many nuns and women over 55 who are Catholic do you expect are using contraceptives? 98%? Get a better grasp of reality.

  • bluebelle

    I guess I am wondering why the Catholic church did not think it sinful to protect so many pedophile priests from coming to justice and actually transferred them into new situations where they knew they would be around children.
    Which is worse– paying for a birth control pill or protecting a pedophile?

  • StockBoyLA

    DaGoat, “The ethical problem I see is that there should be a darn good reason for the government to force people to commit acts they consider sinful,”

    Huh? I didn’t realize that the government was forcing people to use contraception or have abortions or whatever if those people did not want to do so.

    Am I missing something?

  • CStanley

    Stockboy-yes, you are missing a lot about Catholic teaching which includes moral complicity for participating in a sinful act in any way, including the funding of it.

  • CStanley

    Just because you didn’t hear about the bishops raising objections to the state mandates doesn’t ‘t mean it wasn’t happening. Here’s one example:

    Also, my understanding is that a compromise (in states where the legislators would not provide opt out clauses) allowed the church institutions to self insure, and the big sea change with Obama’s mandate is that this option will be off the table. That’s also one reason that the “remedy” the administration offered to habpve the insurers pay the costs is no remedy at all because in many cases the religious institution IS the insurer.

  • slamfu

    Lol Rcoutme, sorry I didn’t include nuns and the elderly. Let me say then that 90+ percent of Catholic women WHO COULD BE AFFECTED BY THIS RULING, have used birth control.

    Also, I am not including infants. Just to make sure there isn’t any confusion.

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