Friday, February 24, 2012

Whose Religious Freedom?

Zealots seldom can see outside the boxes they live in.  Virginia Republicans are now expressing distrust of Governor McDonnell because he 1) backed off the infamous “vaginal probe” prerequisite for women who need abortions; and 2) sent the “personhood” bill back to committee until after the election.  Right-wing Christian fundamentalists and Catholic Bishops are feeling oppressed because the Obama Administration has ruled that Catholic universities and hospitals that employ and serve non-Catholic (even non-Christian) people must require their insurance providers to cover birth control for their employees at no extra cost.  Rick Santorum, the current darling of the dissatisfied  GOP, is convinced that religious freedom is under attack.  He says, regarding “the freedom to believe what you want to believe and practice that belief. . . . they don’t talk about “freedom of religion, they talk about freedom of worship. . . . leaders of this country are narrowing the view of what freedom of religion is all about. . . .”  Once you walk out the door, Santorum says, the government controls what you can think, say, and do.

Because the conventional wisdom is that Santorum is completely unelectable, some Democrats are suggesting that in states with open primaries, progressives should vote for Santorum.  As the contemporary proverb says, “be careful what you wish/pray for.” 

Too often extremists are considered to be crazy, or “unelectable.”  Current polls indicate that a mentality of “a pox on all their houses” is beginning to make itself felt in the country.  President Obama is apparently in a dead heat with Romney and Santorum; at the same time, “[t]here is undeniable dissatisfaction with the field. A 55% majority of Republicans say they wish someone else was running; 44% say they’re pleased with the selection of candidates” (Daily Kos February 21, 2012).

Numbers like that mean that quite a few folks might be staying home on November 6.  Some might think this is a good thing for President Obama’s prospects.  But when reasonable people stay home, the fringes win.  Rather than rolling our collective eyes, religious progressives need to start talking about OUR religious liberty.  As Barry Goldwater famously proclaimed in 1964, “You can’t legislate morality.”  But he also said, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” 

Not only do religious progressives (formerly known as “liberals”) need to speak up for our religious principles; atheists, humanists, and those who define themselves as “spiritual but not religious” must stand up for ethics and morality.  As recent humanist slogans have proclaimed, you don’t need God to love.  You don’t need God to claim protection under the first amendment.

On Thursday, February 23, the West Virginia legislature passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  On its face the Act seems benign.  The Elizabethton Star reports:

        CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia’s childhood immunization requirements would not be affected by pending legislation addressing religious freedoms.  House Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley made that point before delegates passed the bill 92-2 to the Senate on Thursday. The bill responds to a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court opinion upholding state laws that unintentionally affect religious practices. Delegate Larry Kump called the measure necessary. The Berkeley County Republican described how fellow Mormons were driven out of other states in the 19th century. The bill applies to government. It would affirm that people could argue in court that their free exercise of religion has been substantially burdened. The government would have to show it’s furthering a compelling interest in the least restrictive way.  The bill would not prevent government from maintaining health, safety, security or discipline.  
 But next on the Republican agenda in West Virginia is “personhood” legislation, mandating that a fertilized egg is a human being with all the rights, responsibilities, and protections of adults.  Without a clear push-back from religious progressives and humanitarian ethicists, basic human rights will be up for grabs.  The fact that Mississippi voters rejected this is no reason to assume it’s so crazy it could never become established law.

As one of the Tea Party’s favorite founders is reputed to have said,“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” – Thomas Jefferson.

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