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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.

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In his lament over this alleged assault on the bishops' "freedom" to deprive their employees of healthcare, Archbishop Gomez said that the issue was not just about contraception. He is right about that part, at least; let us put the "war on women" to one side, for the moment. This is a war of conquest, designed to expand the power of religious institutions at the expense of the rest of society and the state. It is about carving out an even larger share of the special privileges and exemptions that are already made available only to organized religious institutions.

Such privileges are already substantial. Religions already receive hefty subsidies – by some estimates, as much as $71bn a year – through broad tax exemptions, deductions, and faith-based government programs. A "ministerial exemption" allows them to hire and fire people directly involved in religious activity without regard to anti-discrimination laws.

But they want more. And they are willing to turn the meaning of the word "persecution" on its head to get it.

Archbishop Gomez makes the astonishing claim that religious freedom has suffered in America because the country is becoming "less religious", and people who aren't religious supposedly don't care about religious freedom. It is remarkable enough that a Catholic bishop would assume that people only care about what affects them directly. So, presumably, only poor people would care about poverty, or only gay people care about gay rights. It is flat wrong for the archbishop to suggest that religious freedom is only for the benefit of the religious.

Archbishop Gomez seems to think that religious freedom is some kind of privilege that you get from the state in exchange for signing up for a particular faith. But religious freedom in America has always meant the freedom from state involvement in religion. And it has always been understood, at least until now, that this freedom requires that the state refrain from granting any privilege to religion. The whole point of the first amendment, with its carefully balanced clauses prohibiting the establishment of religion while guaranteeing the right to the free exercise of religion, is to make sure that our freedom of religion comes with this necessary freedom  from religion.

Since Archbishop Gomez appears to believe that people only care about things that affect them directly, let me put it this way: anyone who seeks the truth, whether religious or not, can see the advantage of a system that prevents any one group from using state power to establish a monopoly on it.

The "Fortnight for Freedom" began with the celebration of the feast of St Thomas More, the English Lord Chancellor who was beheaded in 1535 by Henry VIII for refusing to acknowledge that the king, not the pope, was then the supreme head of the church in England. More is a curious choice as a representative of the idea of religious freedom. Before he got into trouble with Henry VIII, he busied himself burning heretics and banning books, such as Protestant translations of the New Testament.

More didn't represent religious freedom. He represented the Catholic Church of his time.

There is a precedent in the past for a system that grants religious institutions special rights to control land and labor, that cedes to them a monopoly on the indoctrination of other people's children, and that allows them to decide on matters of individual and public health. It was called feudalism. It worked out well for the church. For the serfs, not so much.

This is not to say that those behind the "Fortnight for Freedom" can take us back to the days of moats and turrets. But it should at least make clear where they are coming from, and where they may take us if they manage to get all the "religious freedom" they demand.

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