Whose religious freedom?

The freedom of religion and belief is one of our most cherished liberties. The First Amendment protects our right to … Continued

The freedom of religion and belief is one of our most cherished liberties. The First Amendment protects our right to believe whatever we choose. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) would like you to think this right is in peril. As defenders of the Constitution, we beg to differ, and think that some of the recent controversies actually show that the First Amendment is doing its job, and confirm that religious freedom in America is alive and well.

Take, for example, a recent federal court ruling concerning federally funded grants—including to USCCB–to aid trafficking victims. For several years, the bishops would take millions in federal funds and disburse them to other organizations to deliver services to help trafficking victims rebuild their lives, such as housing, clothing, and medical care.

In administering this federal program, however, USCCB prohibited its subcontractors from providing a comprehensive range of reproductive health services – including access to contraception and abortion – to victims, many of whom have been sexually abused, forced into prostitution or raped by their traffickers. In effect, USCCB was using government money to enforce its beliefs on other organizations, some of whom were not religiously affiliated in any way.

We brought a lawsuit challenging the use of these grants to promote a particular set of beliefs at the expense of victims’ needs. Recently, the judge in that case ruled that the government was indeed wrong to allow USCCB to do so. As the court explained, this case was “about the limits of the government’s ability to delegate to a religious institution the right to use taxpayer money to impose its beliefs on others (who may or may not share them).”

Just as they did when the administration announced that employers must include contraception coverage in their health plans, the bishops cried foul, declaring that this was somehow an imposition on the right to practice their faith. This was a hollow claim then, and it’s a hollow claim now.

View Photo Gallery: A debate over the role of religion in political life has shaped recent clashes over contraception and abortion.

The bishops have every right to believe that birth control and abortion are sinful. Consistent with religious freedom, the bishops also clearly have the right to espouse those beliefs and do their best to persuade others to follow their lead. But when the bishops insist that they have a right to use taxpayer money to impose their beliefs on others, that’s something else entirely.

As the judge explained, making sure that taxpayer funds are not used to impose religious beliefs on others does not “discriminate against religion; indeed, it promotes a respect for religion by refusing to single out any creed for official favor at the expense of all others.”

Similar claims of discrimination against religion have been made a lot lately. We see arguments that religious freedom justifies agencies trying to deny loving homes to children in foster care simply because the would-be adoptive parents are gay or lesbian, to insist that hospitals should be able to deny a woman life-saving care if it meant ending her pregnancy, to allow public school guidance counselors to turn away students in crisis if they disapprove of their sexual orientation, to allow any employer the right to refuse to cover contraception in their employees’ health insurance plans, or to allow hotels and restaurants open to the public to refuse to serve same-sex couples. But we know that’s not what true religious freedom is.

The United States is among the most religious, and religiously diverse, nations in the world. Religious freedom is one of our most treasured liberties. This fundamental and defining aspect of our national character is undermined when religion is used as a license to discriminate against others or to impose beliefs on others. The First Amendment exists to allow individuals to live according to their own deeply held values, not to force those values on everyone else.

Louise Melling is the deputy legal director of the ACLU and oversees the organization’s Reproductive Freedom Project.

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  • BobS8

    There’s something sad about this column: while criticizing the Catholic relief organizations that do so much for these victims, again the ACLU does little for those victims themselves. Were the Catholic organizations to go away, I doubt the good folks at the ACLU would step in to help these folks. All these words to make a point, which is what the ACLU is good at, but there’s nothing to compelling to make one believe them to be actually helping anything.

  • catatonicjones

    Why should the ACLU be doing anything like that, it’s not their job. Do you think businesses on wall street should be doing it, how many other human organizations do you require do what the catholic church claims to do?

    We have freedom of religion, you’re aware of that. We have the choice to be catholic or any other religion or no religion at all. When your church decides it can choose for other people what they can believe in, then you’re crossing the line.

    You should dig a little more into the history of intolerance your church faced from the old protestants in our past. Right now you’re meddling in other people’s religious beliefs, you can expect a torrent of disrespect and even hatred as a result.

    As well, threatening to not continue the relief if we don’t do it your way is nothing less than blackmail and extortion, using the helpless as hostages in your demand for special privilege. What a fine church, right.

  • RickWatcher

    Today religious freedom is being defined by the non-religous, godless, and it is being totally destroyed by these socialist/communist/progressive/godless individuals.
    The 1st Amendment was created first because in the countries our founders came from they were being forced into a church they did not want, forced to violate their right of conscience, forced to accept the verdict of a judge who could never be replaced, forced to think, walk and talk the party line.
    During the debates to the Amendments to the Constitution James Madison wanted to include in the 1st Amendment the following; “nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be IN ANY MANNER, OR ON ANY PRETEXT, INFRINGED.” Caps for emphisis. It was decided that these words would not be included because they were, A SELF-EVIDENT TRUTH.
    In today’s socialist trained society their is no self-evident truth about anything and most especially about God and His work in the development of our nation. It’s freedom of religion not freedom from religion.
    Better wake up to the truth before it’s too late.

  • ThomasBaum

    To force or to attempt to force one’s belief on another is not only a violation of the “freedom of religion” clause, it is a violation of Christianity.

    Jesus forced Himself on no one.

    I believe that the separation of church and state were Divinely Inspired.

  • Catken1

    So do you believe that if your wife, pregnant with your third child, is hospitalized, a Gaia-worshipping doctor who believes firmly in ZPG has the right to insist that she get an abortion before he will treat her?

    Does a Muslim employer have the right to deny you health insurance or dock your salary if you eat pork or drink alcohol, because their conscience doesn’t tolerate such abominations?

    Does your child’s atheist teacher’s right of conscience include the right to have that child write an essay about “Why we know there is no God” in the public schools? Does your child’s Hindu teacher’s right of conscience include the right to pressure your child to leave offerings to Ganesh before entering the classroom?

    Or is conscience only for Christians, and the right to force others to abide by your conscience in their private life a special right for your kind only?

  • gurureoul

    “but there’s nothing to (sic) compelling to make one believe them to be actually helping anything.”

    You mean besides protecting civil liberties in court? ‘Cause that’s what they do. Like catatonicjones above: why do you think they should be doing something other than their stated purpose?

    And why is alright for them to make moral choices for those to whom they give aid? If the Catholic organizations go away, then other organizations will rise up to fill the hole.

  • catatonicjones

    Better wake up to the truth before it’s too late.

    Ah yes, the christian threats again. They’re quite bitter about their religion, just why is it they continue to hang on to it?

    And your ‘self evident truth’ is in the Declaration of Independence, not a binding document. There is absolutely NO mention of your god in the Constitution, which is the law of the land. How is it you religious fanatics never fail to miss this?

  • catatonicjones

    It is people like you, with unusual christian beliefs which have the most to fear from a religiously controlled government.
    If one particular variant of christianity runs the government, then the government imposes that variant on all others, including people like you, Tom, who don’t believe as the others believe.

    Again, how is it that christians can’t seem to understand this? You have far more to fear from other christians than you do the atheists.

  • kingcranky


    Poor baby, so upset about so many things that are obviously God’s Will, just not to your liking.

  • pxhoplite

    Catken the fundamental fallacy of your argument is that these institutions are not religiously associated, and are in fact public institutions. The difference is that an institution that functions on the PREMISE of being religious is being told that they must, either by proxy or directly, subvert the convictions of their faith.

    I would suggest really examining the argument instead of swallowing the media’s portrayal of the issue.

  • pxhoplite

    “why do you think they should be doing something other than their stated purpose? ” -gurureoul

    I should ask you the same question: why should an organization that is fundamentally established as a religious organization be required to do something (i.e. provide abortifacients, abortions, or birth control) other than, or against, their stated purpose?

  • Carstonio

    True religious freedom is about the individual, and this is also true of sexual orientation and contraception use. Because all three are private matters that don’t harm others, as far as the individuals are concerned these are no one else’s business. Anyone who opposes *or favors* contraception use for himself or herself should be neutral on whether others use it.The agencies and schools and employers that Melling mentions in the next-to-last paragrph, they’re wrongly making those matters in others their own business. Their point about conscience would be valid if they were being required to financially support slavery. But their definition of conscience is so broad that the only way they could follow it is to abandon US society and live in one that is homogenous regarding religion and sexuality.

  • ThomasBaum

    Why do you say “Christians”?

    I, personally, think that any “religiously controlled government” would be wrong.

    That is why I said above, “I believe that the separation of church and state were Divinely Inspired.”

  • GordonCash

    For the USCCB to claim that its freedom of religion is being infringed makes about as much sense as for white supremacists to complain that Aryans are victims of racism. Whether the claims are true or not (I think both are ridiculous, but that’s just my opinion), white supreacists reject the very idea of racial equality, just as the USCCB rejects the very idea of freedom of religion. The USCCB and its members have worked tirelessly to impose their dogma on the populace at large by the force of civil law, and they continue to do so today.

  • PhilyJimi

    ThomasBaum – You do understand that this is an oxymoron “…the separation of church and state were Divinely Inspired.”

    Your basically saying your version of a god is in control of the government.

  • PhilyJimi

    Exactly how is “Today religious freedom is being defined by the non-religous, godless, and it is being totally destroyed by these socialist/communist/progressive/godless individuals.???? You’re describing the boogie man on the monster in the closet of a 3 year old.

    Understand you are non-religious about every religion except the one you choose to believe in. You can freely choose another religion or god/gods to believe in . If you want to worship the Egyptian sun god Ra knock yourself out just don’t force me to. Just because you’re a member of the most popular religious group in the US, it doesn’t give you special rights to quell the voice of believers or non-believers.

    I am an atheist and I would gladly die defending all of your rights that are guaranteed in the Constitution. Including the 1st amendment rights you have.

  • PhilyJimi

    The Catholic church is an evil immoral organization that has covered up the child rape of its employees all around the world. Just because they happen to do some good things it doesn’t justify ignoring the immoral actions of it’s priests.

    I am sure Charles Manson did some good things in his life also.

    The problem is with the most immoral loop hole within the faith and that is of “forgiveness”. You can do the most horrible immoral things and then just pull out the “forgiveness” card and you’re back in gods good grace. It allows the believer to do anything and then just by asking the make believe deity in the sky will always forgive you. If you’re a believer you really aren’t accountable for your actions as long as your say “I am sorry, please forgive me.”

    There were no atheist flying the planes on 9-11.

  • kingcranky


    As soon as churches and religions stop relying on tax breaks, involuntarily-subsidized by, but not available to, nonbelievers, then your comment will have some legitimacy.

    Why should nonbelievers be forced to involuntarily subsidize the religious lifestyle choices of others?

  • thebobbob

    Well said. Unfortunately this is a political issue, not a religious issue. The Churches risk their tax-free status when they engage in Politics. Beleiev whatever fairy tales you like but to impose your religious fantasies on others is wrong.

  • elizawood

    Beware the intersection of the church, the taxpayer, and the female body. A lot of accidents happen there.

  • wolfeja

    “Were the Catholic organizations to go away…” So this is their plan! Create a dependency on medical, educational, and food services then threaten to withhold those services if everyone else doesn’t convert and comply with their dogma! Holy Inquisition!
    If the Church closes schools and hospitals because of this issue, it will be because thaty CHOSE to in order of avoid complying with the law.

  • elizawood

    Never before have a group of celibate men convinced a group of educated, American women that it is their right to be forced to conceive and deliver children without benefit of possible healthcare at their disposal.

  • ThomasBaum

    The church is not God, God is God.

    God is, ultimately, in control of everything but God gave us free will and with this free will, we can believe or not believe, worship or not worship, among other uses of our free will, and NO ONE should be able to force or attempt to force their beliefs on another.

    I, most definitely, believe that the idea of separation of church and state was Divinely Inspired.

    No, I do not “understand that this is an oxymoron”, you may consider it that way but I do not.

    Just because someone is “Divinely Inspired” does not mean that they necessarily realize that they are.

    I would think that some looked at history and saw how “power” corrupted, including but not limited to religious power, and used their God-given reasoning ability to attempt to avoid some of the mistakes of the past.

    Some even spoke of “rights” endowed by a “Creator”, did they not?

  • usapdx

    Americans have the right to pratice or not to pratice a religion. No one can take a right from a American. The supreme law of America is the Constitution which is by WE THE PEOPLE, not by any religion what so ever. Thoes in doubt should read the Constitution. Amen.

  • usapdx

    The USCCB need to read the supreme law in America, the Constitution.

  • AgentFoxMulder

    “Religious freedom is one of our most treasured liberties.”

    According to the author’s reasoning, the only way to have religious freedom is to deny the faithful the right to practice what they believe. Do you believe that abortion is a sin? Too bad, because expressing that belief in word or deed is bigotry. Do you believe that homosexuality is a sin? Too bad, for the same reason. Etc., etc.

    Who, Ms. Melling, is asking that ANY employer refuse contraception coverage? What PUBLIC school in this country is bound by some sharia-like law that shackles guidance counselors?

    This article is propagandistic drivel. That’s my opinion. I trust I’m still free to express an opinion.

  • Catken1

    If the faithful, in order to practice what they believe, have to impose their beliefs on others, then yes, that’s not allowed.

    That protects you, too. Do other people believe it’s a sin for you to go outside bare-headed? Yes. Can they pass laws forbidding you to do so, or dock your pay if you work for them in a public business and choose to come to work without a hat or turban or yarmulke? No. Do other people believe it’s a sin for you to eat pork or beef, or drink alcohol or coffee? Yes. If they employ you, can they dock your pay for purchasing those items, or deny you health care if you eat them? Can your kid’s school guidance counselor or teacher tell them they’re abominations because they have a ham sandwich at lunch? No.

    You can believe that abortion is a sin, but that does not entitle you to legally require a woman to loan her body parts to another person. I believe it’s a sin not to donate your organs after death, but I can’t use the law to force you to do so, because your body is your own.

    You can believe that homosexuality is a sin, but you can’t deny them the right to marry, just as I believe that insulting marriage by basing its definition on the most physical aspects of sex, and by privileging Gingrich or Limbaugh’s latest trophy affair over Takei and Altman’s long-term devotion, is sinful, but cannot forbid you to marry on the grounds that you insult and trivialize the institution. Nor, if you own a public business or work in the public schools, are you allowed to discriminate against your gay employees, customers, or students because you disapprove of their private life, any more than I am allowed, if I employ you, to fire you because you marry someone I don’t like, or to tell your kids that your family is sick and depraved because you make religious or familial choices I disapprove of.

    See? You get to believe what you like, approve and disapprove others’ actions as you see fit, but you may not interfere with your neighbors’ liberties to take actions of

  • Catken1

    I think you’re essentially on the same side, people.

  • Catken1

    But those businesses are not operating as churches, but for other purposes, and use taxpayer money, as churches may not. Thus, they are not religious institutions, and may not discriminate against employees who do not follow their dogma.

  • AgentFoxMulder

    Thank you for proving my point. The author has foisted upon us, in this article, a series of non-existent, sharia-like conditions to further her propagandistic efforts. She claims that people of faith are falsely crying about persecution. Then she proceeds to fabricate instances of religious impositions in our secular institutions so she can persecute the religious by denying them the right to practice their faith.

    As I said, propagandistic drivel.

  • WheelChairPal

    I am like totally neutral when it comes to just about anything with values. In fact, I have been told I don’t have any values and really I am neutral about that too!

    I am living the dream!

  • TheDiz

    You are clearly well acquainted with drivel.

  • TheDiz

    Like totally!

  • AgentFoxMulder

    You are correct Diz, I frequent this site on a regular basis.

  • Chip_M

    “Who, Ms. Melling, is asking that ANY employer refuse contraception coverage?”

    A bill was introduced in Congress to allow any employer to deny contraception coverage if it conflicted with the employer’s beliefs. Any employer, not just churches and religious institutions. As with personhood bills, the untrasound bill in Virginia, and many other efforts, it is specifically designed to allow the religious to interfere and impede the ability of those who don’t share their beliefs to exercise their own right of conscience. The line of reasoning among fundamentalists is if they don’t like something other people are doing they should have the right to make those things as difficult as possible if they can’t impose an outright ban. Your religious freedom ends as soon as it interferes with someone else’s rights. This is an incredibly simple concept to all but the intentionally obtuse.

  • LoyalReader

    This article addressed the easier question concerning the right of the federal government to require adherence to regulations when religions administer enterprises that receive direct federal funding.

    But, what if the funding is indirect? Students at Catholic universities receive federal grants and other aid. Catholic hospitals treat patients on Medicaid and Medicare. Should the Catholic church be forced to violate its religious principles in the operation of those institutions or close them?

    What about religions that accept no government aid in the operation of enterprises like adoption agencies? Should they be denied the right to operate such enterprises if they, for example, refuse to service same sex couples?

    These are the harder questions.

  • AgentFoxMulder

    Any employer who can show a religious reason for denying such coverage. However, that does not translate to ANY employer as if all employers can now opt out of that coverage. Also, potential employees always have to consider the benefits they will be receiving when they take a job. If an employer is upfront about what they will or will not cover, the employee can consider whether they want to accept the job. I call it freedom of choice. Forcing all employers, including religious employers, to cover something that interferes or impedes upon their own right of conscience is allowing other’s reproductive freedoms to interfere with the rights of the religious.

    I think the term “fundamentalist” is tossed around too easily and just becomes a new form of ad honimem. Now, any person who disagrees with something on religious grounds is considered a “fundamentalist.” The result is, if one does not want to be considered a fundamentalist, they must not take a position on anything.

    I still believe the first amendment is violated by the Obama rule, Ms. Melling not withstanding.

  • nsologar1

    If it is public money, then it MUST be available to anyone needing health services. Or, would the good Godly people deny an individual’s choice.
    If they deny it, then they must use their own personal money to hold back, although that seems barbaric–to force one to reproduce for the CHURCH!