As Catholic bishops and American citizens, we address an urgent summons to our fellow Catholics and fellow Americans to be on guard, for religious liberty is under attack, both at home and abroad. [...]Let's see this for what it is—a demand that secular institutions with ties to religion be exempt from secular law. There is no other way to describe this. See The encroachment of religion on our secular government Part 1, The encroachment of religion on our secular government Part 2, and The progressive fight against the encroachment of religion on our secular government. And this demand for exemption from our secular laws is antithetical to our American system of government. The separation of church and state protects the state from encroachment by religious fiat. It also protects religion from encroachment by the government. Secular laws apply to us all, without regard to religious beliefs. That is a bedrock principle in America. The American Catholic bishops are intent on undermining this bedrock principle.
Is our most cherished freedom truly under threat? Sadly, it is. This is not a theological or legal dispute without real world consequences. Consider the following: HHS mandate for contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs. [...] In an unprecedented way, the federal government will both force religious institutions to facilitate and fund a product contrary to their own moral teaching and purport to define which religious institutions are "religious enough" to merit protection of their religious liberty. [Emphasis added.]
(Continued on the other side)
What is particularly insidious about this campaign by the American Catholic bishops is that they have engaged in overt political activism, waging a vicious campaign against President Obama and Democrats. Reporting on the latest attacks by the Catholic bishops, the New York Times reports:
In an election year, liberal Catholics have accused the bishops of making the church an arm of the Republican Party in the drive to defeat President Obama — an accusation that the bishops reject.
The American Catholic Church has chosen to divide its flock—a flock that has decidedly rejected its teaching on birth control—along political lines. Their attack on Democrats and the separation of church and state has been so overt that this time the Catholic bishops felt obliged to add a line about the Republican war on immigrants.
The Catholic bishops stated:
State immigration laws. Several states have recently passed laws that forbid what the government deems "harboring" of undocumented immigrants—and what the Church deems Christian charity and pastoral care to those immigrants. Perhaps the most egregious of these is in Alabama, where the Catholic bishops, in cooperation with the Episcopal and Methodist bishops of Alabama, filed suit against the law[.]I oppose the Alabama law with every fiber of my being. But the suit brought by the Catholic Church in Alabama is without merit. There is no constitutional right for religions engaged in secular activity to be exempt from our secular law. The bishops argue:
The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America issued a statement about the administration's contraception and sterilization mandate that captured exactly the danger that we face:This is the most troubling aspect of the bishops' argument—the attempt to redefine its secular activity into religious activity. As I wrote previously:
Most troubling, is the Administration's underlying rationale for its decision, which appears to be a view that if a religious entity is not insular, but engaged with broader society, it loses its "religious" character and liberties. Many faiths firmly believe in being open to and engaged with broader society and fellow citizens of other faiths. The Administration's ruling makes the price of such an outward approach the violation of an organization's religious principles. This is deeply disappointing.
First, I want to be clear about what I am NOT espousing: I am not arguing that religions have no place in the public square, debating the issues of the day. To the contrary, like everyone else, religions have an absolute right to advocate for their views, and to fight for the reflection of their views, including those based on their religion, in our secular laws.
If the Catholic bishops believe what they say about contraception, contra Dionne, I do not see how they could, in principle, not fight for removal of contraceptive coverage from the insurance mandate. Dionne argues:
The bishops have legitimate concerns about the Obama compromise, including how to deal with self-insured entities and whether the wording of the HHS rule still fails to recognize the religious character of the church’s charitable work. But before the bishops accuse Obama of being an enemy of the faith, they might look for a settlement that’s within reach—one that would give the church the accommodations it needs while offering women the health coverage they need. I don’t see any communist plots in this.This makes no sense. The Catholic Church is fighting against the inclusion of contraception in the mandate for health insurance (at least with regard to women). It is logical and reasonable for the Church to continue to fight against contraception.
What was never logical or reasonable was Dionne's embrace of the principle of making special exemptions from our secular law for religiously affiliated institutions engaged in secular activities. Being an employer, outside of church employees, is a secular activity. Running a hospital is a secular activity. Running a school is a secular activity. When engaged in secular activities, religions (and religious persons) must abide by our secular laws. This simple proposition should not be difficult to comprehend and accept for a progressive who believes in the separation of church and state. But Dionne has lost his way, chasing the fool's gold of religious "allies" for progressive issues.
Consider Dionne's idea of "the religious character of the church’s charitable work" and what that might mean. If the charitable work of religions, even that which is secular in nature, is considered to be a religious practice, then the government cannot support such "religious work" without running afoul of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In the 2002 case, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the Supreme Court upheld a Cleveland school vouchers program that provided funds to religiously affiliated schools against an Establishment Clause challenge. Writing for a 5-4 majority, Chief Justice Rehnquist stated:
The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, applied to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment, prevents a State from enacting laws that have the “purpose” or “effect” of advancing or inhibiting religion. Agostini v. Felton, 521 U.S. 203, 222—223 (1997) (“[W]e continue to ask whether the government acted with the purpose of advancing or inhibiting religion [and] whether the aid has the ‘effect’ of advancing or inhibiting religion” (citations omitted)). There is no dispute that the program challenged here was enacted for the valid secular purpose of providing educational assistance to poor children in a demonstrably failing public school system. Thus, the question presented is whether the Ohio program nonetheless has the forbidden “effect” of advancing or inhibiting religion.It is notable that Dionne's formulation of a "religious character" of religion's secular activities has not been adopted by the Catholic Church, which instead argues in terms of religious freedom in secular life. Unlike Dionne, the Church seems aware that to argue that its secular activities are religious in character would put in jeopardy all the public funding the Church receives for its secular activities. In Zelman, the Court upheld the transfer of public funds to religiously affiliated institutions, reasoning that:
[W]here a government aid program is neutral with respect to religion, and provides assistance directly to a broad class of citizens who, in turn, direct government aid to religious schools wholly as a result of their own genuine and independent private choice, the program is not readily subject to challenge under the Establishment Clause. A program that shares these features permits government aid to reach religious institutions only by way of the deliberate choices of numerous individual recipients. The incidental advancement of a religious mission, or the perceived endorsement of a religious message, is reasonably attributable to the individual recipient, not to the government, whose role ends with the disbursement of benefits.According to Dionne, the benefits will not be "incidental," but a primary aid to activities of a "religious character," and it will not rely on individual choices. Thus, even following the hard right view that Zelman represents regarding public funding for religious affiliated secular activities is put in jeopardy by Dionne's reasoning.
The reality is that Dionne compromises on the separation of church and state in an attempt to co-opt religion on his side of certain arguments and becomes miffed when the Church does not stop precisely where he wanted it to on the issue of contraception. The sacrifice of principle by Dionne rendered no practical benefit—the very definition of a terrible "compromise."
By accepting the flawed principle of "religious liberty" from the requirement of adhering to secular laws with regard to secular activities, Dionne has made a figurative deal with the devil and has no true argument to counter the bishops' appeal to "religious liberty." The bishops' most recent statement says:
[W]e wish to clarify what this debate is—and is not—about. This is not about access to contraception [...] An unwarranted government definition of religion. The mandate includes an extremely narrow definition of what HHS deems a “religious employer” deserving exemption—employers who, among other things, must hire and serve primarily those of their own faith. We are deeply concerned about this new definition of who we are as people of faith and what constitutes our ministry. The introduction of this unprecedented defining of faith communities and their ministries has precipitated this struggle for religious freedom. Government has no place defining religion and religious ministry. HHS thus creates and enforces a new distinction—alien both to our Catholic tradition and to federal law—between our houses of worship and our great ministries of service to our neighbors, namely, the poor, the homeless, the sick, the students in our schools and universities, and others in need, of any faith community or none. Cf. Deus Caritas Est, Nos. 20-33. We are commanded both to love and to serve the Lord; laws that protect our freedom to comply with one of these commands but not the other are nothing to celebrate.E.J. Dionne has basically made the same argument in arguing for the "accommodation" for religion in our secular government. Dionne has argued that:
The bishops have legitimate concerns about the Obama compromise, including how to deal with self-insured entities and whether the wording of the HHS rule still fails to recognize the religious character of the church’s charitable work.No, they do not. And if they do, then Dionne cannot argue against the latest actions of the bishops on the basis of principle. Dionne wishes the bishops to cede their opposition to contraception in their secular activities, in Dionne's words, of a "religious character." There is no logic or reason in Dionne's position.
Dionne's problem remains his support for "accommodation" to religions in the secular activities. Dionne cannot muster an argument to distinguish his position in principle from that of the bishops.
The progressive position is this: (1) insure religious liberty and freedom by complete government non-interference with freedom of worship; and (2) insure religious liberty and freedom by insisting that no religion shall be exempt from our secular laws when such religions engage in secular activity.
These are the basic tenets of separation of church and state that have guided us since the founding of the republic. They were enunciated by JFK in his celebrated 1960 speech. They are a central tenet of progressivism.
The Catholic bishops have chosen to become an ally of the Republican Party in their ongoing campaign against President Obama and the Democratic Party. I leave it to others to decide whether this should require a re-thinking of the tax-exempt status of the Catholic Church in America.
I don't object philosophically with the Catholic Church becoming an overtly political institution. I do object to those who insist on having us ignore this fact.