At a recent press conference, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D–CA) declared in reference to the religious objections to the contraception mandate: “You know what? I do my religion on Sunday in church and I try to go other days of the week. I don’t do it at this press conference.”
How policymakers conceive of religion—what it is and where and when it is practiced—is important in shaping their notion of religious freedom. Does the First Amendment protect only activities that take place inside a church or synagogue, such as singing, praying, and preaching? Or does it also protect the public exercise of faith in daily life?
Viewing religion itself as something private and separate from the rest of life might make a big difference to the answer.
A narrow, privatized understanding of religion can not only weaken religious liberty but also undermine the role of civil society and help pave the way for bigger, more intrusive government. These are precisely the issues that have generated concern over the anti-conscience mandate and that are inspiring public rallies for religious freedom across the country.
The mandate is problematic not only for forcing employers to cover abortion-inducing drugs and other items they may hold to be immoral. The mandate also suggests a narrow, privatized view of religion itself being advanced by the Obama Administration that corresponds with the most narrow religious exemption in federal law.
The exemption protects only churches and religious orders that hire and serve members of their own faith. That means most schools, hospitals, orphanages, soup kitchens, and non-profit ministries aren’t protected.
Apparently, the Administration views a pastor preaching about the 10 Commandments on Sunday as sufficiently religious, but if on Monday he teaches the 10 Commandments in an ethics class at a Christian school, he is no longer religious enough to qualify for the exemption.
In effect, the view of religion embedded in the mandate recasts the Founders’ robust notion of religious freedom as a much narrower freedom of worship.
Recently, 150 Protestant and Catholic leaders signed a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius protesting the two-class system of religious organizations the exemption has created. Organized by the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, the letter argues that “both worship-oriented and service-oriented religious organizations are authentically and equally religious organizations.… We deny that it is within the jurisdiction of the federal government to define, in place of religious communities, what constitutes true religion and authentic ministry.”
Citizens across the country are speaking out for a robust view of religious liberty. Beginning on June 21, a variety of events—from concerts to educational presentations, from prayer services to rallies at state capitals—will mark what is being dubbed the “Fortnight of Freedom.” The two-week celebration will culminate on July 4 with the ringing of church bells throughout the country at noon Eastern.
May their ringing remind us all that religious liberty is not just for churches; our “first freedom” protects not only the right to believe or teach certain doctrines but to live out one’s faith in all aspects of life.