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Letters & Op-Eds - 2015


Freedom of and from religion

Jon O'Brien and Barry Lynn

18 June 2015

On Sunday, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) will kick off its usual lackluster campaign called the Fortnight for Freedom in Baltimore. This defense of religious liberty campaign is about as disingenuous an effort as any carnival huckster could conjure. In true Orwellian style, the bishops beg for the freedom to discriminate against others while all the while wrapping their campaign in the language of flag, freedom, religion and country.

The reason the bishops — who are supported by a range of other extremist religious business interests — have engaged in this propaganda war over the last couple of years is partially because progressives like us have been so successful.

One truth is clear: The American public has arrived at a consensus that it's not OK to be mean and nasty. They don't think it's OK to take taxpayer money to diagnose someone with HIV and not give that person — through condoms, medication and counseling — the ability to live and love as HIV positive. It's not OK when refugees from Latin America, or those who are victims of sex trafficking or sexual abuse, are denied emergency contraception that could prevent pregnancy — especially when they are not even referred to another provider who can give survivors what they need. The American public does not agree when an employer either refuses to hire you because you want to marry your same-sex partner, you want contraceptives covered by your insurance or you would like to use IVF to have the baby you've always wanted.

And yet, this is the shopping list that extremist religious groups — from the USCCB to World Vision to Rick Warren's Saddleback Church — want to sell you as "religious liberty." What we have been arguing, from a Catholic and a secular point of view, is that religion should never be used to discriminate. We can't have freedom of religion without guaranteeing freedom from religion. It must be a two-sided coin. If we have one without the other, someone's religious belief will dominate all others. That is anathema to what true religious freedom means.

We are not afraid of the bishops' rather embarrassing Fortnight for Freedom campaign. In Mass on any given Sunday, you'll find zero interest or concern among ordinary rank-and-file Catholics that our freedom, religious or otherwise, is under threat from "big government." Ninety-nine percent of Catholic women have used a method of birth control banned by the bishops. Those women are not going to rush to embrace the bishops' bogus claim that their freedom is threatened.

However, the real threat we see is an all-time low in political commitment to, and understanding of, the idea of separation of church and state. When the bishops were embarking on this campaign in the last presidential election cycle, every single one of the Republican presidential candidates bent a knee and promised a blank check for the bishops to take taxpayer money without having to play on the same level field as other government contractors. We have no doubt that most GOP candidates in the 2016 election will also be ready to hand out our hard-earned tax dollars to religious special interests. That the state, with Republican Party support, would be colluding in denying individual freedom and interfering in the privacy of our bedrooms, our health care and our education, beggars belief.

The other side of the aisle is perhaps the most depressing of all. The concessions and appeasement given out by the Obama administration led directly to the Hobby Lobby decision. It was the Obama administration's failure to stand up to the powerful Catholic/religious business lobby — in an effort to rescue contraceptive coverage in the Affordable Care Act — that gave way to the idea that one exception creates many rules. Those rules have been, and will be, used to discriminate against American citizens. If you have the misfortune of working in a Catholic parochial school, or Catholic-run hospital, university or charity, chances are that in the future, you will not be entitled to exercise the same rights other American citizens.

A lack of commitment, a lack of bravery and downright ignorance are leading our elected officials of every stripe and creed to give religious extremists the keys to the bank. Unless we grab hold of our politicians and shake them firmly in the coming election cycle, a dark cloud of religious discrimination is going to descend upon the very freedoms we hold dear. Independence Day would be a good day for citizens of goodwill, religious and secular, to unite and say: Enough is enough.

This letter was originally published by the Baltimore Sun.