Friday, February 3, 2012

A purely private freedom?

Joseph Knippenberg, in "The Obama Admininstration’s Crabbed Vision of Religious Liberty," explains why the administration's arguments in the Hosanna-Tabor case [which the Supreme Court unanimously rejected], and the more recent contraception mandate, reflect a serious misunderstanding of what "free exercise" has meant, and ought to mean:
.... Whenever a church or house of worship ceases to be simply inward-looking, when it in any way engages or serves the wider public, it becomes subject to much the same sort of government regulation as any secular entity. Religious freedom is a purely private freedom. The moment you enter the public sphere, you’re subject to regulation. The public sphere is by definition secular, not pluralistic, with its tone, terms, and limits set by governmental authority.

Now, I don’t mean to argue that religious freedom is or should be absolute, that religious organizations should never be subject to any sort of regulation. I’m at least somewhat comfortable with a compelling state interest test to justify regulation.

But here the Obama Administration seems to go further than that. The logic of its argument in these two cases is that any religious institution that is public-serving has to behave in many instances (those determined by the state) like every other public-serving organization. The religious presence in the public square can’t be distinctive except in ways the government permits.

Pursued consistently across the board (and the Obama Administration hasn’t yet done this), this approach would gravely threaten religious freedom. It’s one thing to say (as some have, though I disagree with them), that if you take public dollars, you have to be thoroughly secular in your operation. Anyone can escape the secularizing effect of public money by refusing to accept it. It’s quite another to say that if you serve the public, your religiosity can’t permeate your efforts and your organization. This would require almost every religious organization I know of to choose between reaching out as a bearer of good news and a helper of widows and orphans and remaining faithful to the very understanding that inspired its outreach. Under these circumstances, a church can’t remain a church. .... [more]