There is good evidence that the first Shatto (Château) immigrants to North America represented a mixed marriage. Jean Nicol was Protestant, perhaps Huguenot, and his wife Eva Maria appears to have been Roman Catholic. Assuming this was indeed the case, it would provide one reason for their choosing Philadelphia as their destination. Founded by Quaker William Penn on the principle of religious freedom, Pennsylvania was long a refuge for those fleeing religious persecution. In 1739 it would have been one of the few places where the young couple could live and rear their children without fear of harassment.
More than a half century later, freedom of religion was codified in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the newly formed United States of America. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …” In the centuries since that amendment was ratified in 1791, numerous court and legislative battles have been fought over just what it means and how it is to be applied in daily life. There is a constant effort to find balance between the rights of the individual and the interests of the state in securing the common welfare.
Over the years the practice has developed of providing exemptions for those who, because of deeply held religious beliefs, are unwilling to comply with laws that have been enacted for the common good. We here in central Pennsylvania are well aware of the exemptions and compromises worked out between government and the Amish. Amish refuse to participate in insurance plans and thus have been exempted from paying Social Security payroll taxes. Their children may leave classroom study at age fourteen without penalty, and they are eligible for non-photo official ID because of their religious strictures against making graven images. On the other hand, their resistance to the use of electricity does not exempt dairy farmers from the public health laws that determine the temperature at which milk must be stored. In this case concern for the greater good of food safety overrides individual belief.
The question of how expansively the principle of religious freedom may be used to justify accommodation for individual conscience has become a point of significant contention in recent years. Conservative Christians, primarily Roman Catholic leaders and fundamentalist Protestants, argue that they have both an individual and an institutional right to refuse to participate in any way in the provision of medications and medical procedures against which they have religious objections.
While limited accommodation has been made for a number of decades in regards to abortion, these conservative Christian groups now seek to significantly broaden the exemptions they enjoy. For example, they argue that a pharmacist has the right to refuse to fill a prescription for birth control pills or devices if the pharmacist is religiously opposed to the use of birth control. And that a business owner, even if the business has no religious purpose, has the right to deny insurance coverage for birth control to employees.
In another area of concern, Focus on the Family and the Alliance Defending Freedom are leading efforts to derail or subvert legislation and school policies aimed at curbing bullying and creating a safe learning environment for all students. They argue that bullying behavior should not be stopped if the bully is acting out of a “sincerely held religious belief.” Because the victims of bullying often are, or are perceived to be, of homosexual or transgender orientation, such a religious exemption would in effect be giving a bully license to gay-bash with impunity. It also puts youthful members of non-Christian religions at increased risk.
The obvious question that all these arguments raise is, “To what extent may one person’s exercise of religious freedom be permitted to deny freedom to another?” Do teen-agers who feel called to preach the sinfulness of homosexuality or who believe that all Muslims are terrorists have the right to harangue their classmates? Or is that perceived right outweighed by all students’ rights to be free from taunting and harassment?
May a doctor or hospital deny emergency contraception to a rape victim, even if no alternative source is available within reasonable proximity? What about the doctor who refuses to give information about alternatives or deliberately gives misleading information in order to prevent the woman from receiving the services she needs? Some would consider such tactics to be an admirable use of civil disobedience, comparable to the lunch counter sit-ins of the civil rights era. Others say that they are an unacceptable imposition of one’s religious beliefs on another who does not share those beliefs.
When I was a child, one of the books I read repeatedly was a collection of Aesop’s fables. I can still recall the illustration for “The Dog in the Manger” – a snarling canine crouched on the hay he will not eat, snapping at the faces of the cattle that have come to feed. It sometimes seems to me that this picture represents the attitude of those who claim “religious freedom” in order to deny rights and services to others: “I don’t believe in it, so you can’t have it.”
We live in a country where civil authorities must sort out all these conflicting claims. It’s a challenging and difficult task. Offense to the consciences of some must be balanced against harm to the persons of others. When there is general agreement across a wide variety of religious and secular viewpoints on a given topic, the task is made easier. Yet even widespread agreement is not an absolute criterion for determining action. Foundational to our Bill of Rights is the concept that the civil rights of a minority must not be subject to majority vote.
Demographic studies show us that the population of the United States is becoming ever more diverse racially, ethnically, and religiously. If we are to hold together and thrive as a single nation, no one group can be permitted to impose its particular religious beliefs on others who do not share them. That way lies theocracy, and a return to the kinds of oppression that many of our ancestors fled centuries ago. Let us pray that balance, tolerance, and true religious freedom remain the law of our land.