Un­der­stand­ing Amer­i­can lib­erty

The Covington News - - OPINION - WIL­LIAM PERUG­INO COLUM­NIST Wil­liam Perug­ino is ac­tive in lo­cal and re­gional pol­i­tics and can be reached at 3pe­rug­i­nos@bell­south.net.

Au­thor­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ments — whether re­li­gious or sec­u­lar — have long sought to curb or even to ex­tin­guish re­li­gious lib­erty. On the other hand, the lim­ited Amer­i­can government es­tab­lished by our Con­sti­tu­tion respects the in­sti­tu­tions of our civil so­ci­ety — in­clud­ing, es­pe­cially, re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions. The Amer­i­can Found­ing Fa­thers be­lieved that strong re­li­gious con­gre­ga­tions and vi­brant faith com­mu­ni­ties were es­sen­tial to or­dered lib­erty. As a re­sult, Amer­i­cans have long en­joyed the fullest re­li­gious lib­erty in the world and we have reaped the ben­e­fits of a flour­ish­ing civil so­ci­ety rooted in that re­li­gious free­dom.

Com­pared to the era of our found­ing, more and more power is now be­ing cen­tral­ized in the na­tional government. To­day, for ex­am­ple, many poli­cies that af­fect lo­cal pub­lic schools are made in Washington. As creep­ing cen­tral­iza­tion slowly over­comes the Con­sti­tu­tion’s fed­eral de­sign, the na­tional government has be­gun to re­strict the free­dom of re­li­gion that is an in­dis­pens­able el­e­ment of the Amer­i­can found­ing.

Th­ese re­stric­tions are, thank­fully, not like the vi­o­lent as­saults on re­li­gious lib­erty in places like Iran, Pak­istan and China. But just as a home­owner should be con­cerned about the se­cu­rity of his home’s foun­da­tion be­fore a river spills over its banks, so we should be­ware the dan­ger of ero­sion in the foun­da­tion of Amer­i­can free­dom. By im­pos­ing a judg­ment where it ought to re­spect re­li­gious lib­erty, the over­reach­ing government threat­ens the free­dom of all re­li­gious com­mu­ni­ties.

One of the most sweep­ing cen­tral­iza­tions of power in U.S. his­tory came with Pres­i­dent Obama’s health care over­haul in 2010, of­ten re­ferred to as “Oba­macare.” The law pre­scribes what pa­tients must buy, what in­sur­ers must of­fer, and what kind of health care cov­er­age em­ploy­ers must cover. It of­fers no way out.

The mas­sively com­plex 2,700-page law will re­quire thou­sands more pages of reg­u­la­tion to im­ple­ment in the coming years. One of the first rules is­sued un­der Oba­macare came in Au­gust 2011, when the Sec­re­tary of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices, Kath­leen Se­be­lius, pro­posed re­quir­ing nearly all in­surance plans to cover — at no cost to the in­sured — abor­tion-in­duc­ing drugs, con­tra­cep­tion and ster­il­iza­tion.

Many Amer­i­cans are deeply trou­bled by abor­tion-in­duc­ing drugs, such as the morn­ing-af­ter pill — what some call “emer­gency con­tra­cep­tion.” Oth­ers ob­ject on re­li­gious grounds to the use of con­tra­cep­tion. Yet in its fi­nal rule, is­sued in Fe­bru­ary 2012, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fered just the nar­row­est of ex­emp­tions, shield­ing only houses of wor­ship from the state’s re­quire­ments that vi­o­late their con­science. Re­li­gious em­ploy­ers — such as Catholic hos­pi­tals, Chris­tian schools, and faith-based soup kitchens — do not qual­ify for the ex­emp­tion and will have to pro­vide the abor­tion-in­duc­ing drugs to which they ob­ject. Fail­ing to com­ply with the man­date will re­sult in mas­sive fines.

The rule pro­voked in­tense, wide­spread, and sus­tained op­po­si­tion from Catholic, Protes­tant and Jewish groups, as well as oth­ers.

Now that the Supreme Court has al­lowed Oba­macare to stand, the full weight of the mas­sive health care law will be­gin to press on Amer­i­can’s free­doms. One of the first places that will be felt is on re­li­gious lib­erty as the HHS man­date on abor­tion drugs and con­tra­cep­tion un­der­mines the rights of count­less em­ploy­ers and in­di­vid­u­als to choose health plans that align with their mo­ral and re­li­gious be­liefs. As the co­er­cive man­date’s en­force­ment con­tin­ues, so too will more than 20 fed­eral law­suits against the rule, as dozens of or­ga­ni­za­tions, busi­nesses and in­di­vid­u­als de­mand the re­spect of their first free­dom.

In the con­tro­versy over the Oba­macare man­date, some of the clear­est ar­gu­ments on re­li­gious lib­erty have come from the U.S. Con­fer­ence of Catholic Bish­ops. The bish­ops have ar­gued not sim­ply for an ex­panded ex­emp­tion from the anti-con­science man­date that would cover their re­li­gious min­istries. They urge an end to the man­date al­to­gether, since it im­poses in­ap­pro­pri­ately on the free­dom of con­science of all Amer­i­cans. Spe­cial ex­emp­tions are in­ad­e­quate. When a pol­icy threat­ens re­li­gious lib­erty, it of­ten threat­ens free­dom more gen­er­ally. It shows that the government has out­grown its lim­its and is plac­ing the foun­da­tions of Amer­i­can so­ci­ety at risk.

Re­li­gious free­dom re­quires that the government does not in­ter­fere with re­li­gious faith and the char­i­ta­ble works it in­spires. If a government is truly lim­ited, fric­tion with re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions and in­di­vid­u­als will be rare. Of course, oc­ca­sion­ally, ten­sions be­tween faith and state may arise even un­der a lim­ited government. The Found­ing Fa­thers counted on th­ese ten­sions to keep the state in check.

When the Amer­i­can government and re­li­gion clash reg­u­larly, the prob­lem is the rise of the un­lim­ited state, a prob­lem that en­dan­gers the foun­da­tions of Amer­i­can so­ci­ety. The con­flict be­tween faith and state in the U.S. is civil, not thank­fully, vi­o­lent, as it is else­where around the world. But our con­flicts are civil be­cause of the or­der we es­tab­lished un­der the Con­sti­tu­tion. The best way to pre­serve so­cial and re­li­gious peace in Amer­ica is to re­spect the con­sti­tu­tional or­der, and en­sure that government re­mains lim­ited.

Un­der­stand­ing Amer­i­can free­dom to­day means rec­og­niz­ing that, while lim­ited government is es­sen­tial to se­cur­ing lib­erty, a government that is big enough to cross any line is big enough to take lib­erty away.

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