Freedom of religion: The liberty of individual conscience

Black and Sensenbrenner are trying, as some in Congress have tried before, to gain special rules for those wishing to discriminate by creating loop-holes large enough to drive Sunday School buses through instead of acting to protect every individual's right to exercise their beliefs as they see fit regarding healthcare and the health of their families.
This bill comes on the heels of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ ineffective campaign to stir Catholics to the defense of the bishops’ notion of religious liberty. The reason the bishops failed is because a sizeable majority of Catholics, according to the Public Religion Research Institute poll, don’t feel their religious freedom is threatened at all.
Today’s American Catholic bishops and the members of Congress with whom they unsubtly ally themselves would have us think they are the latest victims of religious persecution. Their claims denigrate the suffering of those who know the true meaning of that term. A few powerful conservative religious leaders, not joined by the majority of their faith or even all their fellow bishops, have opened their coffers to fund lawsuits against the government to allow them to force others to live by their rules and to deny them what everyone else is guaranteed by our society. This isn’t about religious liberty. It’s a sham. And a dangerous one.
It’s been said that perception is everything, and it’s a lesson some American Catholic bishops have taken to heart. Claiming religious persecution and wrapping yourself in a flag in an election year is sure to get you in the media. It doesn’t make what you’re saying true. Having failed to convince Catholics, both clergy and laity, that the use of birth control is a moral offense, the bishops have taken to the courts to secure their demand to discriminate against Catholics and non-Catholics who disagree, suing the Department of Health and Human Services. The bishops have made clear their disdain for the law that guarantees healthcare to all Americans, for the president who signed it and for the Supreme Court justices who upheld it. This is what the bishops’ ongoing campaign is really about. Their bogus claims about religious liberty are being fanned by those who share other more political and partisan concerns, especially as the election draws nearer. We only have to look as far as Sensenbrenner and Black’s proposal to see the proof. They’ll say it’s about religious freedom, but it’s up to all of us not to fall prey to the tawdry abuse of a principle that is dear to us.
For reasons like these, we at Catholics for Choice brought together more than 50 other organizations to form the Coalition for Liberty & Justice. CLJ is a broad alliance of faith-based, secular and other organizations that works to ensure that public policy protects the religious liberty of individuals of all faiths and no faith and to oppose public policies that impose one religious viewpoint on all.
It is the rights and health of men and women of every faith and of none that hang in the balance with the bishops’ latest grandstanding and in proposals like this discriminatory bill. When the demands of a powerful religious minority are privileged over the rights of every citizen in a society, the results are never good.  Hard-working families will not be able to afford contraception; with a shrinking safety net, more children will grow up in poverty. Men and women won’t be able to get their prescriptions filled if their employer or pharmacist judges the use or provenance of the medicine immoral. Women who need abortions, even to save their lives, will be turned away. This is not what Americans want, and it’s not what America is about.
This isn’t a battle for religious freedom—at least in the way the bishops and their allies have styled it. Religious liberty is, and should be, sacred to us all. Equal justice under the law should be more than a slogan. We know that one’s conscience must lead each person to a judgment about how to act, and that conscience must not be subverted by another person’s demand. It’s up to our leaders in government to ensure that these principles, the freedoms each American is guaranteed, are not compromised for a political gain by an influential minority, even, perhaps especially, when that minority claims a religious mantle. It is our hope that this bill goes the way of its predecessors, and cooler heads prevail.
O’Brien is president of Catholics for Choice.

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