Since September 11, 2001, I have made it my practice to wait as long as possible before writing the editorial. The dynamic of history, particularly the dynamic of church-state history, has changed. Things happen quickly. So I wait to see what develops as Liberty nears press time.
This issue made its way through the various proof stages with quite a number of blank pages: more than just blank editorial pages. We were waiting on the Supreme Court to bring down a decision on the Hosanna Tabor case.
At stake was the whole principle of church autonomy, or the "ministerial exception," that allows a church to project its doctrinal views through institutional behavior. From my sense of history, the underlying issue tended to evoke the titanic struggle between church and state that was worked out in twelfth-century England between Henry II and his once-protégé Thomas à Becket. How would the modern-day dynamic play out? I wondered. Six of the nine justices are Roman Catholic. The case before the court concerned a teacher in a small Lutheran school. But there was the specter of scandal in their Catholic Church. How would they balance demands of the state for church accountability and cooperation in the ongoing priestly abuse cases with the time-tested and initially Protestant inspired separation of church and state?
The wait was worthwhile. Liberty now proceeds with a follow-up article on the decision. In an era of gridlock and split decisions it was unanimous! The ministerial exception stands affirmed. Church-state separation gains a measure of reprieve—although one would not have guessed this from the Christian nation blather that has regularly been heard during the run-up to the presidential election. One candidate even affirmed that there is no such thing as separation of church and state!
I was about to put together an editorial on another topic when something unexpected happened. I first heard about it by listening to a White House press briefing. It seems that under new health-care insurance requirements, church-run hospitals might be required to provide employees with insurance coverage for contraception! Roman Catholic hospitals were objecting that this denied their rights of religious freedom.
The Roman Catholic position on contraception takes a thoroughly biblical worldview and tries to make a mandate that only a minority of Roman Catholics follow. It has not rallied other religionists the way that the church's anti-abortion stance has. The abortion issue has become a powerful political rallying point. Contraception has not, until now, had anywhere near the political resonance.
Like nearly everything public that happens just before an election, this seems to me to be more about politics than religion. I wonder if some of the reaction to the health-care mandate is not more about influencing Catholic voters than it is about church-state separation! And why react now! After all, this comes from the long-since-passed health reform act, which surely was well enough known. And while the mandate was to have originally kicked in this year, an extension took it to August 1, 2013.* If the presidency changes, one could reasonably presume the demise of what has become known as "Obama Care" before that date.
This magazine has no license to favor one party above another. Our concern is to ensure that any civil leadership respects true religious freedom. This magazine has long held that the best religious freedom model is the one that in the United States gets its mandate from the First Amendment of the Constitution: a separation of church and state. It's worth remembering that, counterintuitively, the First Amendment was not an amendment after the fact, as the designation would imply. Rather its inclusion with the original core draft of the Constitution was the very condition for passage of the whole document.
But what is true separation in this present furor? Is it as is said currently by the bishop of Syracuse, for example, that "the government should not mandate or force any religious entity to do something they believe is morally wrong." A deeply held view, no doubt, but a little more ambiguous in this case than one would think.
From what I hear and read, the question devolves around providing insurance that offers the contraception option to employees who are mostly non-Catholics in operations that serve mostly non-Catholics; often with money provided by the State.
While there is a legitimate reason to react in horror at any suggestion that the State might compel people of faith to act against their conscience, this case might not be so easily categorized.
If the government is intent upon bending people of faith to its will, I would expect all who value religious freedom to object. If the Roman Catholic Church, or any other church, seems inclined to use public service leverage to ensure public policy matches its own, I would hope that our same freedom group would cry No!
The real sleeper issue here, as it is with much of the political warfare of the present day, is money. Liberty magazine has consistently warned church organizations against taking state money. We have from the very beginning of the Faith-Based Initiative of the previous administration (an initiative still alive and kicking against the First Amendment establishment prick) warned that it is inimical to church-state separation for public monies to be used to advance any particular faith view. So it would seem a little ungrateful to the public purse for a church to object when the state applies generally applicable regulations to an operation it might tend to see as its pocket money project.
It is a shame that I have to write this editorial on the occasion of complaints from the Roman Catholic Church. They are not the only ones who have taken money, only to cry foul. It is true that Catholic charities, for example, take more government grants that all other denominations combined. But other church groups would take more if they could. In my view there is a parallel between the revelation of undue government control by lobbyists and their money and the corruption of true religious freedom occasioned by the eagerness of most churches to reach into the public treasury.
It may be that the various lawyers will finesse this current imbroglio against the Administration—or rap the knuckles of church/public institutions. I cannot see that far ahead at this point. I know only that the Supreme Court just passed the most resounding affirmation possible for church integrity—if churches keep to the business of the spirit. I know only that love of money remains a root of evil, and even churches are tempted in this regard. I know only that the distinction between the proclamation of the gospel commission Jesus called for and the monolithic religious uniformity of the Middle Ages is in the presence or absence of compulsion. I know only that the difference between state accommodation to religious activity and state compliance with religious activity goes to the heart of the difference between freedom and persecution.
Editor's note: A last-compromise has made a mandate for insurers to provide contraceptive services free of charge. The church-state discussion continues. We will look at this in greater depth in our next issue. Of coure we do not want the state to run rough-shod over deeply held faith views.
Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."