Blair: Give Me Liberty

by Peter Blair | 2/20/12 11:00pm

This past June, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley signed one of the harshest immigration laws in the country, making it illegal to transport or "harbor" illegal immigrants. Because the language in the provisions is so vague, religious institutions across the spectrum in Alabama Methodist, Episcopalian and Catholic fear that many of the charitable and religious services they provide to immigrants will be considered crimes under the new law.

Last March, a couple in England was prohibited from becoming foster parents. Although they had previously fostered children in the 1990s, they were denied the right to be foster parents again because they insisted they had the right to say a homosexual lifestyle was unacceptable. In addition, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently issued a controversial mandate that insurance companies must provide coverage of contraception for employers, including Catholic hospitals and schools that may morally object to their use.

In the last case, the government has recently announced a compromise, but what it offers is just as bad as the original policy. Although the content of the compromise is still exceptionally vague and unclear, it seems that the upshot consists of the following proposal: Religious groups that object to contraception would be required to purchase insurance plans that do not explicitly list contraception as one of the services covered by the plan. The insurance company would then contact the employees to tell them that they can receive insurance under this plan, even though the plan does not explicitly list contraception as a service, and the insurance company will provide it for free to any employee who wants it. Of course, there's no such thing as a free medical service in this world, and the cost of the contraception will just get shifted onto the employer-paid premiums. The only difference is that insurance companies, instead of the religious employers, will be the ones to tell the employees that contraception is covered. The compromise amounts, then, to nothing more than a sleight of hand, intended to distract its opponents.

This, however, is a secondary issue. All of the above examples demonstrate a single fact: It is gradually becoming impossible for religious people who hold unpopular beliefs to fulfill their committment to social justice. If you are an Orthodox Catholic in America who believes what the Church teaches and wants to dedicate your life to caring for the poor or for orphans, watch out. Your type is not allowed.

The folly of crippling the Catholic Church, when it is one of the largest providers of social services in this country, is obvious. By forcing religious institutions to choose between caring for the poor but violating their conscience in the process and honoring their conscience while shutting down their social justice work, the American government is creating an impossible dilemma. A nation cannot be healthy if it is full of citizens who regularly do things they believe to be deeply immoral. Furthermore, a nation cannot be just if it does not care for its poor. The closure of Catholic charities would be an irreparable loss to social justice in this nation.

The above are some of the ways that the nation would be damaged if religious people with unpopular beliefs were forbidden from service work. The most frightening outcome, however, is the precedent effect. Martin Niemoller's statement has become cliche, but it still rings true: "First they came for the communists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me."

Religious organizations, because of their unpopular beliefs, have become an easy object for exclusion from the public life of our nation. But once you cede to the government the power to force people to do things they think are deeply immoral, there's no way to limit, in principle, the damage done. Today, it's religious organizations. Who knows who it will be tomorrow?