Guest Post: Why I Oppose The Religious Freedom Measure
Religious freedom is a current topic of conversation at both the state and federal levels. At the federal level, Congress has been considering legislation that would exempt employees of universities, hospitals and charities operated by the Roman Catholic church from receiving contraceptives and contraceptive surgeries, rights which will become available to all other employees under the Affordable Health Care Act. Whenever one religion or a single religious denomination is singled out for special treatment under the law, we should carefully consider whether or not the religious freedoms of Americans will be damaged or enhanced by the passage of the legislation which creates the special treatment.
At the state level, North Dakota will soon be voting on a proposed amendment to the state Constitution. A reasonable paraphrase of the proposed amendment says that “Government,” (both state and federal government?) may not withhold benefits, assess penalties or exclude any person or religious organization from programs or from access to facilities unless the government can demonstrate a compelling state interest for the threatened burden on religious liberty.
At first glance, it would appear that these two proposals are quite different. After all, the proposed federal statute applies specifically to a single religious denomination, while the proposed amendment to the North Dakota Constitution seems to apply generally to all religious liberties. But, as my law school professors used to tell us, “that is a distinction, but does it make a difference?”
In deciding if the two propositions are actually different, we should begin by remembering that religious freedom in our country has always had two parts: first, the freedom TO believe anything we choose to believe and worship the way we choose to worship and second, the freedom FROM coercion by either the state or by another religion or religious denomination.
The freedom to believe and to worship however we please is the fundamental religious freedom in our pluralistic society, and is as close as anything we find in American law and culture to an absolute freedom. But, the freedom FROM the religious dictates of other people or organizations is not quite so absolute. The problem with these rights was first described to me in a Methodist youth group half a century ago by a crusty old retired minister who told us never to forget that “your rights end where my nose begins.”
Here’s an example that illustrates the main controversy which is fueling all of the discussions about religious liberty. Bishop Samuel Aquila, the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Fargo diocese, is pretty clear in his belief that every sexual act must be open to the possibility of conceiving a child in order to be a faithful and honest expression of God’s gift of sexuality. I respectfully disagree with this magisterium.
My wife and I were in our mid twenties when our third child was born nearly forty years ago. After some discussion, we decided that three children were all that the limited resources of our love, attention and financial position could responsibly care for. This placed us on the horns of a dilemma. We were unwilling to end our marital relationship and begin a new relationship as brother and sister. And we were unwilling to take the risks of unplanned future pregnancies that we did not want to have. So, with fear and trembling, we made what seemed to us the best and most faithful choice available to us. I underwent a brief and relatively painless surgical procedure which ended the possibility that I would once again impregnate the woman I loved. Forty years later, as we watch our grandchildren growing up healthy and strong, we still believe that we made the right choice.
And so it seems that the freedom TO make choices, both religious and secular, for our own lives will often require a freedom FROM the choices and decisions that other people similarly situated might seek to impose upon us. Our freedom TO decide how many children to bring into the world should not be burdened by the beliefs held and choices made by people of other religions or other religious denominations.
As Bishop Aquila has so eloquently stated the case, it would be a tragedy if Catholics are “… stripped of their God given rights.” And it will be equally tragic if Lutherans, or Presbyterians or Jews or Muslims or even people of no faith at all are stripped of their God given rights. To prevent this tragedy, we must remember that the rights of the Catholic Bishops to enforce their teaching authority must end where the decisions in our Presbyterian household concerning how many children we can nurture begins.
For this reason, I find that I must also oppose Measure 3 on the primary ballot in North Dakota. The measure seems to me to deny the fundamental fairness of the lesson I learned so long ago, that everyone’s rights must end at the point where everyone else’s noses begin. The failure to recognize this fundamental limitation of human freedoms can only produce a rash of broken and bloody noses. That will not help any of us to find our ways back to God.
Dr. Tom Potter is a retired finance professor, lay pastor in the Presbyterian church, and a candidate for Democratic-NPL endorsement for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by the retirement of Sen. Kent Conrad. For More information, visit his website at www.PotterForSenate.com.Tags: measure 3, North Dakota News, religious freedom, tom potter