Part 2 of 3.
as the state religion of Iran in 1501
In 2006, then-Sen. Barack Obama gave a speech on religion in the public square. Obama said:
Conservative leaders have been all too happy to exploit this gap, consistently reminding evangelical Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their Church, while suggesting to the rest of the country that religious Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage; school prayer and intelligent design.I consider it one of Obama's worst speeches ever. On the substance, it is nonsense—accepting of Republican nostrums on "what Democrats think," and then proposing ridiculous ideas for "religion in the public square." As a question of politics, it was a failure as its intent was to inoculate Obama from attack on "lack of faith" grounds from the "Religious Right." Kenyan socialist muslim anyone? But if that speech was the end of it, well, politics is what it is. But it has not ended there.
Democrats, for the most part, have taken the bait. At best, we may try to avoid the conversation about religious values altogether, fearful of offending anyone and claiming that—regardless of our personal beliefs—constitutional principles tie our hands.
At worst, there are some liberals who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical, or thinking that the very word "Christian" describes one's political opponents, not people of faith.
E.J. Dionne, joining the most radical elements of the "Religious" Right, has led the "progressive" Catholic attack on the principle of separation of church and state. Dionne points to Obama's 2006 speech as the beacon to follow on this issue, rejecting in essence the famous formulations of JFK's 1960 speech on the issue.
The encroachment of religion on our secular government proceeds at an alarming pace.
Last Thursday, the United States Senate narrowly rejected, by a 51-48 vote, passage of the Blunt Amendment, also known as the "Respect for Rights of Conscience Act." The amendment would:
Amend the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) to permit a health plan to decline coverage of specific items and services that are contrary to the religious beliefs of the sponsor, issuer, or other entity offering the plan or the purchaser or beneficiary (in the case of individual coverage) without penalty. [...] Declares that nothing in PPACA shall be construed to authorize a health plan to require a provider to provide, participate in, or refer for a specific item or service contrary to the provider's religious beliefs or moral convictions. Prohibits a health plan from being considered to have failed to provide timely or other access to items or services or to fulfill any other requirement under PPACA because it has respected the rights of conscience of such a provider.To its, credit the Obama administration opposed the Blunt Amendment:
Prohibits an American Health Benefit Exchange (a state health insurance exchange) or other official or entity acting in a governmental capacity in the course of implementing PPACA from discriminating against a health plan, plan sponsor, health care provider, or other person because of an unwillingness to provide coverage of, participate in, or refer for, specific items or services.
A proposal being considered in the Senate this week would allow employers that have no religious affiliation to exclude coverage of any health service, no matter how important, in the health plan they offer to their workers. This proposal isn't limited to contraception nor is it limited to any preventive service. Any employer could restrict access to any service they say they object to. This is dangerous and wrong.No word on what E.J. Dionne thinks. However, the Obama administration could be accused of betraying the 2006 words of Sen. Obama by "try[ing] to avoid the conversation about religious values altogether, fearful of offending anyone and claiming that - regardless of our personal beliefs—constitutional principles tie our hands." After all, if you provide "accommodations" to religiously affiliated institutions regarding their conduct in the secular world, why not to religious persons as well?
The Obama administration believes that decisions about medical care should be made by a woman and her doctor, not a woman and her boss. We encourage the Senate to reject this cynical attempt to roll back decades of progress in women’s health.
The failure was in not championing the separation of church and state as a principle designed to insure free exercise of religion and protect the secular government from the encroachment of religion. This approach protects religion and the state. It is a principle worth fighting for and being proud of the fight. Instead, the Obama administration is now down the path of a convoluted morass of deciding when, and when not to, accommodate religion in our secular government. The line should be easy to find.
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in a recent case, much touted by supporters of the Blunt Amendment, the Supreme Court explained where the line should be drawn. The case is HOSANNA-TABOR EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN CHURCH AND SCHOOL v. EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION ET AL (PDF). Writing for a unanimous Court, Chief Justice Roberts stated:
Until today, we have not had occasion to consider whether this freedom of a religious organization to select its ministers is implicated by a suit alleging discrimination in employment. The Courts of Appeals, in contrast, have had extensive experience with this issue. Since the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U. S. C. §2000e et seq., and other employment discrimination laws, the Courts of Appeals have uniformly recognized the existence of a “ministerial exception,” grounded in the First Amendment, that precludes application of such legislation to claims concerning the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers. We agree that there is such a ministerial exception. The members of a religious group put their faith in the hands of their ministers.When is comes to the religious institution itself and its function as a ministry, the state has no role and must have no role. Thus a religion can choose to not ordinate women or persons of color as ministers. It can apply discriminatory rules in all aspects of its religious institutions, insisting that women be segregated from men, both in the place of worship or on transportation vehicles operated for purposes of the religious institution. (To be sure, the Court is not particularly consistent in application of this principle.)
Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs. By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments.
However, when the religious institution chooses to engage in the secular world, regulated by our secular government, this protection from government regulation and law ends. Thus, when the Hasidim of Brooklyn choose to use public transportation, they are not permitted to enforce their discriminatory views that women must ride in the back of the bus.
When a religion decides that it will own public accommodations, such as hospitals, it must abide by our secular laws and regulations. This is the crucible of the issue today. Consider this New York Times editorial:
A wave of mergers between Roman Catholic and secular hospitals is threatening to deprive women in many areas of the country of ready access to important reproductive services. Catholic hospitals that merge or form partnerships with secular hospitals often try to impose religious restrictions against abortions, contraception and sterilization on the whole system.Here is the line, easy for all to see. The imposition of religion on a secular public accommodation should not be countenanced. In this case, it involves the Catholic Church imposing religious limitations on health care for women at a public hospital. In the case of the Blunt Amendment, the principle is extended to religious persons, not just institutions.
This does not mean that religions and religious persons must be out of the public arena. To the contrary, religions and religious people should be in the arena, like all of us, fighting for our respective views.
I would expect, and defend the right of, religions and religious persons to work to have their views enshrined in our laws. Thus, for those religions who oppose birth control and women's right to choose, I expect them to fight for the overturn of Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade. For those religions who believe in discrimination based on gender, race or sexual orientation, I expect them to be in the public arena fighting for secular laws that encompass their views on these subjects. And for the positive, for those religions and their adherents who oppose the death penalty, aggressive war, and unbridled capitalism, I expect them to be in the public arena fighting for their views.
My expectations are met every day. No religion and no religious person has been excluded nor do they act as if they have been excluded from the public arena. What some demand however is that even when they lose the argument in the public arena, that they get an exception from following our secular laws. That is unacceptable.
It is a principle that no progressive should even contemplate, much less accept. And yet, too many do. Many Democrats and progressives have, to coin a phrase, "taken the bait." We now see more clearly where that path is leading us. It is an unacceptable path.
NOTE: This series has been extended to one more part which will be published next week. That concluding article will discuss, among other things, the theological support for separation of church and state.