Shortly after Theodosius I became emperor of Rome, in 479 A.D., he revoked the Edict of Toleration and made Catholicism the state religion. No longer was there even a pretense of separation of church and state. In short order, pagan worship was outlawed, pagan temples were seized and their properties confiscated. Possession of many books was declared illegal and the penalties for possession of such books or pagan icons could include confiscation of all property. Terrified Roman citizens soon began burning their own libraries. Untold numbers of written works were lost to posterity. People were simply unwilling to take the chance that they might lose everything they owned. Ultimately, this is the goal of religious zealots to use to power of the state, its police and military might, to impose their religious beliefs upon everyone else.
The campaign begins with protestations innocence. The zealots pose as the victims. All they want, they will declare, is the right to practice their religion. But soon, they will proclaim that their rights are violated if others practice differently, or do not practice at all.
Today we see the ugly tactic again rearing its head. Emboldened by a relentless campaign first against “unrestricted abortions” that morphed into “any” abortions for any reason, we now see these same zealots turning their attention to contraceptives. Lead by the same theocrats that brought us the first Dark Ages — the Roman Catholic Church– politicians such as Rick Santorum whine that the rights of their most extreme religious adherents are being violated if the state does not take their part in a campaign to undermine women’s reproductive health care.
Over the last several weeks, we have been subjected to a debate that attempts to raise a freedom of religion argument in opposition to government regulations that would require some religious organizations to provide certain health care benefits to its workers. This debate is a sham with the ultimate objective of dismantling a health care program that one should expect religious organizations to support for the good of people.
Some see this as simply an attack upon women by misogynist Christian sects (as well as some Jewish and Muslim elements) but it is more than that. Like the canary in the mine that heralds poison gas leaks that will ultimately kill every miner, if the fight over women’s reproductive rights ends with victory for these zealots, it will prove to be just a jumping off point for their ultimate objective, the utter and complete control over all societal behavior. Religious zealots cannot be satiated until everyone practices their brand of whatever religion they profess, or at least pretends to. The current sparring over contraception is merely a harbinger of things to come, for they cannot stop. They must always have heretics or infidels to crusade against and exterminate. Their promise for society is another Dark Ages, with more book burnings and witch burnings and Inquisitions. Lest there be any doubt, this is Rick Santorum’s real platform, and it is an agreeable Faustian bargain for all of the other Republicans currently running for president.
No one advocates a policy that would prevent anyone from expressing his or her religious beliefs. Nor is anyone being compelled to use contraceptives, or to have an abortion. No one is being forced to have sex out of wedlock. No one is being forced to marry someone of the same gender. Religions are free to convince people to behave consistently with their dogma, but they are, and ought to be prohibited from using the power of the state to force people to obey their dogma.
If a religious institution decides to run a hospital, a thrift store or to operate a university, it is making a choice. No religion is being forced to engage in these activities. But when they do, they are competing in a marketplace and they are hiring employees. The playing field must be level when it comes to voluntary endeavors. Employees should all be subject to the same minimum wage laws, the same laws relating to hours and breaks. If the government mandates that employers provide certain benefits it would be discriminatory to exempt some businesses while requiring other similar businesses to comply. An employer who is exempt from paying a benefit is actually paying its workers less than a non-exempt employer and is therefore at a competitive advantage. Such a result rewards a religious employer with an economic preference.
Take, for example, a thrift store run by Jehovah’s Witnesses. They don’t believe in any medical intervention at all. Are they entitled to a complete exemption from providing medical insurance to their employees? Can they require that their employees refrain from spending any portion of their paycheck for health care? Can the Catholic Church prohibit employees at their hospitals from privately purchasing health insurance that includes contraception and abortion benefits? If the minimum wage is $8.00/hour plus a health plan that provides contraceptive coverage, can the Catholic Church get away with providing a cheaper plan that does not provide that coverage? What if the law says, if an employer fails to provide the coverage, the employee is entitled to a minimum wage surcharge equal to the cost of obtaining such coverage privately? Can the religiously affiliated employer demand, as a condition for employment, that its employees not use birth control? Not have an abortion? Not seek any medical care at all? Can Baptists tell potential employees that they must sign a pledge to not drink alcohol? Where does it stop?
Our constitution addresses religious liberty in two parts: freedom to practice religion and a prohibition against government establishing religious requirements. There is a tension between these two liberties. One person’s freedom can be another person’s oppression. In some places laws exist that prohibit various commercial activities on Sunday. Is this a government-imposed religious requirement? After all, Sunday is a Sabbath to some, but not to all. Can the government force a Jew or a Muslim to abide a Christian Sabbath? Sometimes courts avoid this question by declaring that there is a secular purpose to a day of rest that simply through custom has fallen on a religiously recognized day. But is that really the case? For some, that would mean two days of inability to do business, their religion’s Sabbath and Sunday. Over time, Sunday Sabbath laws have dwindled, but they are not completely obliterated. However most of us now recognize that the decision to close a business on Sunday, or any other day, ought to be a private one.
The constitution also gives our government the power to regulate commerce. One of the purposes for this power is to insure that there is a level playing field for similarly situated enterprises. If the government makes exceptions, it must justify them. However, the government need not make exceptions. Once any person or entity decides to engage in commerce, it is agreeing to abide by reasonable government regulation of that commerce. For example, just because a religion endorses the use of a hallucinogen, it doesn’t mean that the government must permit a business run by such a religion to sell the drug.
So it is not infringing upon religious freedom to require, let us say Georgetown University, to provide its janitors with the same health plan as NYU. No one is requiring the Catholic Church to operate Georgetown University. But the government does have a legitimate interest in insuring that all janitors get similar health coverage.
The freedom to practice one’s religion is a freedom that pertains to activities involving worship. It is a freedom that entitles church members to assemble together and to employ free speech to convince others to follow their path. But it is not a freedom to advantage the religious institution in its commercial enterprises. Such a demand by any religious denomination is a demand for special treatment. It is a demand that our government must not agree to because it is really asking for all of us to treat as special, a specific religion. To give Catholic universities or hospitals an exemption from any labor laws that apply to similar commercial enterprises would be a violation of the constitution’s prohibition against establishing a government sanctioned religion.
What these advocates of so-called freedom of religion are arguing for is that their practices be imposed upon all of us. They want to prevent everyone from using contraceptives. They want to prevent every woman from having an abortion, regardless of the reason. So they demand that the enterprises they support get special treatment, thus an advantage over others. Over time their demands will prove insatiable, their position intractable and we will find a government edict dictating that we follow their creed. This is not a matter of freedom but a matter of theocracy.
Once upon a time, in ancient Catholic Rome and in Europe during the Middle Ages priests were not subject to the laws of the state. They could not be tried in a civil court. They could commit any crime and walk free, unless the Catholic Church decided to discipline them. Some, like Rick Santorum, would have us go back to those days. But we must be aware of the danger, as were the drafters or our constitution. Every cleric, of every stripe should be put on clear notice that once stepping out of the church and beyond their roles as leaders of services, that upon entering into the public square the secular laws of our state apply equally to them as to everyone else. And politicians who advocate special exemptions to clerics from our secular laws, merely because of their religious affiliations, cannot without perjuring themselves, swear to uphold and defend the constitution of the United States. The likes of Santorum, Romney and Gingrich, in particular, are by their own admissions, disqualified to hold public office under our constitution. If we do not want to invite a return to the Dark Ages, we must repudiate them and their extremism.