Freedom of religion is safe

Is religious freedom suddenly under attack in America? That’s what the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops and some non-Catholic allies would have you believe. But reports of the demise of this fundamental liberty are greatly exaggerated.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishopshas designated June 21 to July 4 as a “fortnight for freedom.” During those two weeks, the church will trumpet its already well-known opposition to an Obama administration regulation that private health insurance plans include contraception services. The rule applies not to churches but to colleges, hospitals and charities that serve and employ non-Catholics. Even so, the bishops insist that it undermines their church’s religious mission to serve the larger community without compromising its beliefs.

The bishops are free to argue, including in court, that the contraceptive mandate is a violation of the church’s rights under the 1st Amendment and a 1993 federal law known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. (This page disagrees.) But some of the church’s rhetoric has been shrill and simplistic. One bishop compared Obama to Hitler and Stalin, who, “at their better moments, would just barely tolerate some churches remaining open but would not tolerate any competition with the state in education, social services and healthcare.”


Equally excessive was the church’s response to the rejection Tuesday by North Dakota voters of a proposed Religious Freedom Amendment to the state Constitution. The measure would have allowed believers to disregard laws that offended their religious beliefs unless a “compelling government interest” were involved and the state used the least restrictive means possible to further that interest. It’s true that the amendment was modeled on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was approved overwhelmingly by Congress and signed by President Clinton. It also was subjected to farfetched attacks, such as the argument that it would allow parents who beat their children to escape punishment because they were employing “biblical discipline.”

But in reacting to the amendment’s defeat, the North Dakota Catholic Conference said, “We will not rest until religious freedom in North Dakota is protected in the law as a fundamental human right.” Robust religious freedom — including an exemption for churches and religious schools from some generally applicable laws — is already protected in North Dakota and throughout the country by the 1st Amendment and Supreme Court decisions. Like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the North Dakota amendment would have provided protection for religion over and above what the Constitution guarantees.

The bishops and other critics can cry foul about the Obama administration’s policies, but they shouldn’t cry wolf.