Sunday, December 11, 2011

Religious Freedom: A Thorny Issue

Claude Mariottini has a post on Obama’s War on Religion, which discusses a recent column by Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune. Chapman does not take seriously much of Rick Perry’s accusation that President Barack Obama is waging a war against religion (i.e., Obama chose not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, etc.), but there are some things that Obama has done that trouble Chapman, who calls himself a “staunch secularist”.

First, Obamacare requires that all insurance plans cover contraception and sterilization for women, notwithstanding the fact that Catholicism opposes both on religious grounds. While Chapman acknowledges that there is a religious exemption for employers, he states that the Administration defines “the term so tightly that religious hospitals, social service agencies and colleges wouldn’t qualify.”

Second, Obama’s Justice Department recently sided with a teacher who was suing her school for discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Chapman states: “Not only that, it said churches and their schools should be treated no differently from other employers. Taken to its logical conclusion, that would mean the Catholic Church could be forced to admit women to the priesthood.”

Chapman’s point is certainly relevant to the case, but there is more to the debate than what Chapman says, according to Slate’s description. The ADA and other civil rights laws have a ministerial exception, which says that courts cannot interfere in disputes between religious organizations and their ministerial employees. The teacher in this case, Cheryl Perich, argues that she performed a variety of secular roles for the school and thus is not technically a ministerial employee (even though she also did some religious things). That has prompted Chef Justice John Roberts to wonder what exactly a minister legally is. And the Slate article states that Justice Sonia Sotomayor has raised another concern:

“Justice Sonia Sotomayor quickly explains that what bothers her is the possibility of the ministerial exception being used to deny court scrutiny of ‘a teacher who reports sexual abuse to the government and is fired because of that reporting.’ She adds, grimly, ‘We know from the news recently that there was a church whose religious beliefs centered around sexually exploiting women and, I believe, children.’”

Other justices have raised interesting points and questions, as you can read in Slate‘s article.

Whether or not the Cheryl Perich case has anything to do with freedom of religion, religious freedom can be quite a thorny issue. I thought about this some as I read David Marshall’s The Truth Behind the New Atheism. In Chapter 10, “What About the ‘American Taliban’?”, Marshall interacts with Richard Dawkins’ view that Christians should not be allowed to raise kids. Whether or not Marshall is correct in his characterization of Dawkins’ position, I do not know, for it’s been a while since I have listened to Dawkins’ The God Delusion. There is concern by some, however, that conservative Christianity has a damaging effect on children, in that it teaches them that they are corrupt sinners and induces into them guilt, as well as promotes intolerance against others (i.e., people of other religions, homosexuals, etc.). But, appealing to Harvard psychologist Robert Coles’ work, Marshall contends that Christianity actually helps and inspires children.

So I guess that my question is what many have asked: Should there be boundaries on religious freedom, and, if so, what? There may be black-and-white areas on which most people can agree (i.e., religious institutions should not be allowed to physically or sexually abuse children, even if that’s a part of their religion), but there are other areas that are gray. For example, I do not think that the Catholic stance against birth control helps society, but rather hurts it. But should Catholic hospitals be compelled to provide birth control? I can see pros and cons to that.


  1. Nita Farahany, a highly educated academic on President Obama's Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues: What makes you think that science will ever be able to say that forcing women to wear burqas is wrong?
    Sam Harris: Because I think that right and wrong are a matter of increasing or decreasing well-being -- and it is very obvious that forcing half the population to live in cloth bags, and beating or killing them if they refuse, is not a good strategy for maximizing human well-being.
    Nita Farahany: But that's only your opinion.
    Sam Harris: Okay... Let's make it even simpler. What if we found a culture that ritually blinded every third child by literally plucking out his or her eyes at birth? Would you then agree that we had found a culture that was needlessly diminishing human well-being?
    Nita Farahany: It would depend on why they were doing it.
    Sam Harris: Let's say they were doing it on the basis of religious superstition. In their scripture, God says, "Every third must walk in darkness."
    Nita Farahany: Then you could never say that they were wrong.

    I don't entirely agree with Sam Harris, but I think he is right to oppose relativism.

  2. Thanks for that comment and link, Davey. That somewhat overlaps with my post on a foundation for ethics.


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