Friday, July 6, 2012

Whose Freedom of Religion/Conscience?

I received a comment from a reader, which is posted on the preceding blog comments. Occasionally, I post a response as a blog, because I believe the comment contains sentiments/ideas that touch on general interest.

Dear Silias,

In regard to your statement,

“Actually, democracies have THE WORSE [worst] record of protecting minority rights of all types of governments, historically speaking.”

I would very strongly disagree with your assertion. You need merely consider the Twentieth Century to realize the absurdity of such a claim. The Third Reich under Hitler, the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin and the People’s Republic of China under Mao Zedong (all totalitarian regimes) together arguably murdered more people than all other governments combined in all previously recorded history. Incidentally, democracies constitute a small sliver of all forms of human government throughout history, the overwhelming majority have been authoritarian governments in which the common people have had little or no voice in decisions directly affecting their daily lives such as the subject at hand, their health care.

I agree with your sentiments regarding minority rights in the face of majority rule; in fact, I have argued that very point in previous articles. The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution and the courts exist to protect minority rights (admittedly imperfectly) against majority tyranny.

That stated I think you have misunderstood the thrust and main point of my article.
I think it prudent, as my old philosophy professor used to say, to begin by clearly defining our terms. Specifically, what is meant by the expression “Freedom of Religion/Conscience.” Black’s Law dictionary, Seventh edition, defines Freedom of Religion as,

“The right to adhere to any form of religion or none, to practice or abstain from practicing religious beliefs, and to be free from governmental interference with or promotion of religion, as guaranteed by the First Amendment and Article VI, Section 3 of the U. S. Constitution.”

Since laws are the codified values of a people, Black’s definition provides us with definition that represents both the legal, and culturally normative understanding of the term Freedom of Religion/Conscience in the USA. Reading that definition it becomes apparent that this right is primarily conferred upon individual citizens and secondarily upon associations of like-minded people (including religious organizations).

The bishops claim that a mandate that Catholic institutions (e.g. universities, charitable agencies) provide insurance coverage (such coverage normatively includes reproductive services/procedures) to employees, students and their dependents violates Catholic’s Freedom of Religion/Conscience.

The bishops are attempting to redefine Freedom of Religion/Conscience as being primarily, or at the very least equally, accorded to institutions (e.g. the Catholic hierarchy) and secondarily, or at most only equally, to citizens. The NCCB seeks to interpret a special right/privilege that they will first, use to effectively impose their views/beliefs and practices upon subordinated people (i.e. employees, students, staff, and their dependents). Second, to carve out and enshrine a special legal status for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) within American society.

Ironically, the practical effect of their demands will involuntarily impose NCCB beliefs/values/practices on citizens, who happened to be their employees/students/and dependents thereof, regardless of the beliefs, values and practices of these subordinated people. In effect, the NCCB will trample on the Freedom of Religion/Conscience of individual citizens (employees/students/and the dependents thereof) through raw economic coercion. If you work for us, or attend one of our universities, we will involuntarily exclude you from normative health care insurance benefits that contradict the employer’s religion, regardless of your religious beliefs or practices.

An employee, student, etc of a Catholic institution would have their conscience effectively overruled by the bishops; unless they could afford to pay for these services/medications/procedures out of pocket and many cannot. This has the practical effect of violating the Freedom of Religion/Conscience of employees, students and their dependents.

The fact that a majority of Catholics find no moral issue with disregarding the bishop’s prohibition of contraception, unmasks that this is NOT about the issue of Freedom of Religion/Conscience, as it has been historically understood. Nor is this per se about contraception. This is about power and control by the bishops of American law and society, period.

This is not an attack on Catholics by the government; in fact, it is the government protecting the Freedom of Religion/Conscience of all its citizens (including Catholics) against a powerful elite attempting to force its very narrow interpretation of Catholicism involuntarily on others by redefining Freedom of Religion/Conscience and attempting to intimidate elected officials.

The most succinct and insightful statement on the hierarchy I’ve yet heard was voiced by the Prime Minister of Ireland, a historically Catholic nation, when he said to the Parliament of that nation,

Prime Minister Enda Kenny denounced to lawmakers last week what he called "the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism – and the narcissism – that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day."

P.S.: More "Special Rights" for Catholic institutions.