Religious freedom, or freedom from religion?

samEagleIn moral philosophy we consider the all-important distinction between freedom “from” and freedom “to”. The basic idea is that for centuries freedom was considered a kind of privilege exercised by those who had time, money and talents to do the things they wanted to do, hopefully in favor of virtue and the common good. With the coming of modern times, freedom was viewed more as a kind of personal liberation from constraint. This latter view of “freedom from” won out during Modernity and led to classical liberalism, holding that the individual should be protected from coercion, and in particular from coercion from the state or other large organizations, such as religion. Of course the danger was, and still is, that the “freedom from” itself can lead to coercion. Enter the totalitarian regimes of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Hitler to name the “familiar four”. In the name of “freedom” these dictators sought to coerce everyone away from God, religion, and any practices that promoted a faith other than their own “civil religion” and its priesthood of parties and cults of personalities.

In the USA, in the liberal tradition, we have a constitutional, or limited, government. It is predicated on the the idea that people should not, and cannot, be burdened by the law in a way that leads them to violate their consciences, including their religious convictions. The Founders of the U.S Constitution were so dedicated to this principle that they built it specifically into the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. Over the decades the Supreme Court has upheld the Free Exercise of the First Amendment in a consistent manner, the most recent case being the “Hobby Lobby” decision of a few months ago.

The challenge remains, however, as people, cultures and governments become more aggressively secular in outlook, the view toward religion becomes indifferent or even hostile. An interesting case in point is the recent federal district court decision to force the Little Sisters of the Poor congregation to implement HHS Mandate insurance coverage to include sterilization, artificial contraception, and even abortion, three practices that clearly violate Catholic moral teachings. The court claims insurance coverage for these practices does not burden religious freedom for the Nuns, because they don’t have to practice them, yet the congregation argues that the US Government has no right to coerce compliance. I’m not a legal scholar, so please consider the arguments in the video below, to get some more orientation on the issue. We seem to be entering another “freedom from” religion moment. Maybe see you in (Supreme) court…

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