Hollywood, the media and activist judges chip away at First Amendment rights . . .
During the 1960s, it was hip to protest the Vietnam War. Many called upon their principles or religious beliefs to protest an unpopular war as “conscientious objectors.” Hippies popped flowers into soldiers’ rifles, and Jane Fonda went all the way to Hanoi to gripe about the conflict.
When people of faith object to something that goes against their beliefs, however, the same rules don’t apply. For example, when Elaine Huguenin refused to photograph a lesbian commitment ceremony in New Mexico last year because of her religious beliefs, she was fined $7,000 for discrimination. What had once been deemed “forward thinking” has suddenly become “backwards.”
First Amendment rights
Although the U.S. Constitution protects the right to freely practice one’s faith, activist judges spurred on by Hollywood and the mainstream media are chipping away at First Amendment rights. When freedom of religion clashes with the court-granted “rights” of minority groups, people of faith usually end up on the losing side.
“The rights of conscience clash when it comes to abortion and related life issues and the homosexual agenda,” said Legatus member Alan Sears, president of the Alliance Defense Fund, the largest religious liberty legal alliance in America. “We are receiving calls in these areas all the time.”
Same-sex couples’ rights have caused a sea change in the law.
“It is nothing short of an earthquake,” said Kevin Hasson, president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
“In places where same-sex ‘marriage’ or civil unions are legalized, you change hundreds of statutes,” he said. “It affects housing. What if a same-sex couple wants housing at Notre Dame? It affects places that host wedding receptions. What if the Knights of Columbus are asked to host a lesbian wedding? It affects wedding florists. It affects employers. What if a homosexual is hired by an archdiocese and wants his partner to be covered by insurance?”
Health care professionals who do not want to partake in abortion, sterilizations and contraception have also been targeted. One of President Bush’s last acts before leaving office in December was to enact a Provider Conscience Rule which protects health care workers from being fired or penalized for refusing to participate in abortion or other morally objectionable procedures.
In March, President Obama began the process to rescind the rule. It’s currently undergoing a White House review. However, during his speech at Notre Dame in May, he spoke in favor of “drafting a sensible conscience clause” in order to “honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion.”
The U.S. bishops and pro-life legislators applauded Obama’s sentiment, but they’re also demanding that he back up his words with action.
“We were delighted to hear that the conscience of health care workers would be defended,” said Sears. “But what does it really mean?”
When the Founders wrote the Constitution — even before the First Amendment — they included a provisional clause designed to free Quakers from having to swear fidelity to the Constitution in violation of their conscience. Instead, they were allowed to “affirm” their fidelity. When the First Amendment was added, religion was the first freedom it protected.
“In the olden days, the First Amendment was just about swearing and not going to war,” said Hasson. “Now there are millions of Americans in a thousand different religions and denominations. In 1990, the Supreme Court decided in Employment Division v Smith that the situation had become very unwieldy.”
Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia held that laws of so-called “general application” trumped religious practices. Scalia, long hailed as a religious rights champion, ruled that the government had the right to interfere with religious exercise, challenging a long-held American tradition of the right to practice religion freely.
“Under Scalia’s reasoning,” Hasson mused, “a sheriff in Oklahoma could bust a First Communion class for underage drinking.”
Piero Tozzi of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute concurs, saying state constitutions bring a lot to bear on recent cases.
“In light of the Supreme Court’s Smith decision drastically curtailing free exercise protections under the First Amendment, religious liberty clauses in state constitutions become increasingly important,” said Tozzi, who has argued religious liberty cases on state constitutional grounds. “It remains to be seen whether state courts will continue to interpret these long-standing provisions as protecting a fundamental liberty when challenged by rights of recent vintage — like the right of homosexuals to ‘marry.’”
Brian Rooney, communications director for the Thomas More Law Center, says state laws need to be beefed up. “If we really want to safeguard religious liberty, we need to get states to pass robust statutes that protect religious liberty,” he said.
He points to New Hampshire lawmakers’ May 20 decision to reject a bid to legalize same-sex “marriage” after Gov. John Lynch — a Catholic — insisted the bill contain religious liberty protections. Lawmakers in favor of same-sex “marriage” balked at this provision and voted against the bill.
However, the “Hate Crimes” bill passed in April by the U.S. House of Representative is a cause for concern. It extends protections to homosexual and transgender “victims.”
“It is a slippery slope,” Rooney said. “What is a hate crime? Even if it is only words and not assault, you can still be tried. If a pastor says that same-sex relations are immoral, and a person in the congregation goes out and attacks a gay person, that pastor could be in trouble.”
Religious freedom advocates worry that if things don’t change, people of faith could be forced to compromise their beliefs or face prosecution like residents of Sweden or Canada.
“In 2003, a pastor in Sweden taught very politely about sexual morality,” Sears explained. “He said that homosexual behavior was wrong and called for repentance. A person in the congregation tape-recorded the talk, and the pastor was sent to jail.”
Likewise, religious freedom in Canada has eroded due to lawsuits and human rights tribunals’ charges against people of faith. Canada legalized same-sex “marriage” in 2005 after activist judges ruled in favor of the practice in eight of 10 provinces.
In June, the Connecticut Office of State Ethics launched a probe into the Bridgeport diocese’s efforts to head off two bills that infringed upon its religious liberty. Officials are investigating whether the diocese acted as a “lobbying organization” when it bused people to a rally to protest a bill that would have granted more power to parishioners regarding church finances. The diocese also urged churchgoers to contact lawmakers about a bill to legalize same-sex “marriage.” Bishop William Lori says diocese was simply exercising its constitutional rights to free speech and assembly. The diocese has launched a civil lawsuit against two officials in the Office of State Ethics.
The front lines
Americans’ failure to adequately defend their constitutional right to religious liberty has compounded the erosion of those rights, experts say. Those on the front lines are worried about Americans’ lack of concern.
“Are we too complacent as Catholics? Yes,” said Rooney. “But we’re better than we were in the past. We’re faced with FOCA, hate crimes legislation, civil rights being expanded to include homosexuals. The Department of Homeland Security sent out a communication recently to all federal, state and local law enforcement agencies saying that prolifers are potential terrorists. But, on a positive note, our bishops have found their voice since last fall’s election.”
Sears contends that Christians need to stand up and be counted in the culture, the courts and the voting booth. Prayer, education and action, he contends, are essential to the fight. Most of the organizations defending religious liberty have regular e-mail alerts to keep supporters aware of the issues.
“Legates have an unusual ability to influence their companies and their surroundings on these issues,” said Sears. “We have to remember that Legatus members’ real role is above and beyond the organization itself.
“The First Amendment and religious freedom are in great peril, and the greatest peril is freedom of conscience,” he explained. “We’re winning lots of cases, but the future depends on people of faith standing up and fighting.”
Sabrina Arena Ferrisi is a staff writer for Legatus Magazine.
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