The bishops and most Catholic political activists have made “religious liberty” the cornerstone of their argument against the HHS mandate. But this is extremely short-sighted in my opinion, and is likely to be used against us. In the first place, the concept of liberty is slippery and ambiguous. Consider two possible definitions of religious liberty: 1) the right to be free from legal coercion in religious matters; and 2) the right to be free from social and economic coercion in religious matters. This distinction is critical but is lost on most people. The bishops have definition #1 in mind, but the courts and the general public already think in terms of #2 … and #2 is a trojan horse with great potential to undermine Catholic institutions.
In 2011 a legal complaint was filed against Catholic University of America arguing that Muslim students have the right to their own prayer rooms – along with the right not to be intimidated by Catholic symbols everywhere, such as crucifixes in the classrooms. Religious liberty in this sense means the right of individual Muslims to unfettered religious expression and accommodation, even on a Catholic university campus. And why not? Liberty is liberty. To the extent that religious expression is in any way prevented or made difficult, religious liberty is compromised. Religious liberty, according to this understanding, depends upon the means and opportunity of expression rather than the absence of legal prohibitions. The CUA complaint went nowhere, but the logic is already employed in other contexts, so it isn’t far fetched to imagine all kinds of anti-Catholic mischief being justified in the name of religious liberty.
Furthermore, we really don’t believe in a generic form of “religious liberty” anyway, even in the sense of freedom from legal coercion. Consider the same-sex “marriage” controversy. Some religious denominations believe in it. Don’t their members have the right to religious liberty? Same goes for Muslims and others whose religions allow polygamy. And what about numerous other religious-based practices that ought to remain illegal – take female circumcision, for instance, or smoking pot? Better yet, let’s consider child sacrifice, which is known to be practiced by the adherents of La Santa Muerte. Does child sacrifice as a religious liberty issue seem far-fetched to you? It shouldn’t. Devotees of this Mexican death cult are already here, as are Americans who believe in the right to kill children yet unborn. The idea of religious liberty means that people should not be forced to comply with religious values they don’t believe in. Many Americans – including many religious Americans – don’t believe in Christianity’s absolute prohibition of child killing. Don’t they also have a right to religious liberty?
The fact is that any unspeakable horror can be justified in the name of religious liberty. Religious liberty isn’t the issue. The issue is Christian liberty, because Christianity is true and its values are good for society. That might be a harder sell, but it’s an honest one and it will never be used against us. As it stands, I’m afraid the more battles we fight for “religious liberty”, the more ground we cede to our enemies.