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How Corrupt Catholics and Evangelicals Abuse Religious Freedom

The founding fathers saw the state as guarantor of freedom from persecution. Now, the Church is trying to cast it as persecutor.

It is a terrible thing when a once-noble phrase gets beaten to a meaningless pulp. The time has now come to rescue the phrase "religious freedom" from its abusers. In the writings and speeches of Catholic bishops and evangelical leaders in recent months, "religious freedom" has come to mean something close to its opposite. It now stands for "religious privilege". It is a coded way for them to state their demand that religious institutions should be allowed special powers that exempt them from the laws of the land.

On 22 June, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops kicked off its "Fortnight for Freedom", a campaign of complaints about alleged persecution of the largest, most powerful and politically influential religious denominations in the UnitedStates. Religious freedom is "in jeopardy in America", says  Archbishop Jose H Gomez in a prominent article in the theological journal First Things. Let's consider some of the alleged assaults.

At St Xavier University in Chicago, Illinois, the adjunct professors had not had a raise in five years, according to Tom Suhrbur, an organizer with the  Illinois Education Association. In 2010, in hopes of securing higher pay and benefits, they sought to organize themselves into a union.

The administration of St Xavier, with the backing of many prominent Catholic organizations,  opposed the effort on legal grounds. Why? Because, it claimed, theirs is a religious institution, and the unionization of its employees would involve a violation of its "religious freedom".  The National Labor Relations Board sided with the adjuncts, pointing out that neither the university, nor its faculty, nor their courses were actually religious in any meaningful sense.

But Catholic University of America President  John Garvey, at an address to the bishops intended to kick off the "Fortnight for Freedom", listed the National Labor Relations Board decision as a grievous example of the "decline in respect for religious freedom". In his mind, it seems, "religious freedom" means the power to engage in union-busting without having to obey national and state labor laws. In the past month, attempts by Duquesne University adjuncts in Pittsburgh have run into the same sort of opposition, as the university argues that its affiliation with the Spiritans, a Roman Catholic order, affords it a special exemption from the jurisdiction of the NLRB.

Evangelical organizations are just as convinced as the bishops that religious liberty in the United States is under attack. For them, many of the issues center on public schools, and the most egregious assault is the reported ban on school prayer. In fact, prayer by students in appropriate places and times has never been banned. What is banned is religious groups using the authority of the school to impose their prayer on other people's children. That's not freedom. That's power.

The event that precipitated the "Fortnight for Freedom", of course, was the Obamaadministration's decision that insurance plans offered under the Affordable Care Act would be required to cover certain aspects of women's healthcare, including contraception and other family planning services. Catholic hospitals, universities, schools, and other affiliated institutions employ hundreds of thousands of women across the country, many of whom are not themselves Catholic, and most of whom are engaged in work that has nothing to do with  religion. But to Catholic bishops, the idea that a Catholic-affiliated organization would be obligated to give these female employees healthcare coverage which they consider objectionable is a gross violation of "religious freedom". In other words, rather than being a guarantee of your freedom to worship, religious liberty is the power to rewrite laws that offend you – such as laws designed to protect the health of working women.

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