US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Parsing "religious freedom": The Maryland bishops on legal threats to practicing the faith

By Bryan Cones | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

The bishops of Maryland today released document called "The Most Sacred of All Property: Religious Freedom and the People of Maryland," which outlines what the bishops see as threats to religious freedom, with some telling examples: a Methodist church that lost its tax-exempt status for refusing to rent a structure it owned for a same-sex wedding; a rural Illinois pharmicist who refused to fill prescriptions for the morning after pill and was then sued; a Baltimore pregnancy crisis clinic that was required by a city ordinance to post a sign listing the services (abortion and contraception) it does not provide. News reports connect the bishops' document to a coming debate about gay marriage in that state.

But the variety of situations make it hard sometimes to understand what "religious freedom" means and how the state should determine what qualifies as an exemption for religious reasons. Consider some cases:

1. In Illinois the law creating civil unions requires any benefit given to a "spouse" in a civil marriage be given to partners in civil unions. That means that Catholic Charities, which has a state contract for adoption and foster care services, must consider couples in civil unions as candidates for foster and adoptive parents if it continues to receive state money. It also means that Catholic institutions must offer spousal benefits to couples in civil unions if it offers them to civilly married couples. Is religious freedom being violated here?

2. Proposed federal health insurance regulations require health plans to cover contraception and sterilization for women, with a very narrow exemption for religious groups--basically plans covering ministers but not nurses in Catholic hospitals. Is religious freedom being violated here?

3. What about that pharmacist who doesn't want to fill a Plan B (morning after pill) prescription, even though he is the only pharmacist for miles? The photographer or florist who doesn't want to accept a same-sex couple as clients? The inn owner who doesn't want to rent a room to a same-sex couple? When does "religious freedom" start to look like plain discrimination? After all, just because two people share a room--even a bed--doesn't mean they are having sex. Where do you draw the line?

4. What about the freedom to break a law for religious reasons? Alabama's recent immigration law made it illegal to take an undocumented immigrant anywhere, even to church, drawing a lawsuit from Methodist, Episcopal, and Roman Catholic bishops on religious freedom grounds. Is preventing Christians from aiding those in need a violation of religious freedom?

I think I can give several different answers to the above, none of which is a simple yes or no--and I'm not sure I'd go the "religious freedom" route on all of them. One question I do have, though: Who gets to decide what constitutes a "religious reason" sufficient to gain exemption from a civil law? Bishops? Individuals? The courts?