Column: Has religious freedom gone the way of the rotary phone?

Michael Schuttloffel is the executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference.
Michael Schuttloffel is the executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference.

by Michael Schuttloffel

America remains the home of the brave — if you doubt that, Google the name Michael Monsoor — but is it still the land of the free?

This question is ever more on the minds of religious Americans, who are very much on the defensive these days.

The first line of the First Amendment is dedicated to the protection of religious freedom, and religious freedom was widely understood at the time of the founding to be one of the very pillars of the American project. But times have changed. The culture is now openly hostile toward religion and religious people. The First Amendment has been turned on its head, being widely understood now as protecting the public square from unwanted religious influences.

In the contemporary mind, religious freedom is nothing more than a freedom of private worship. As long as you are not dragged off to jail in handcuffs for going to Sunday Mass, your religious freedom has been respected.

However, the freedom to live one’s faith in one’s daily life as a full participant in society — in other words, the freedom to exercise one’s religion (see the First Amendment) — well, this has gone the way of the rotary phone.

Catholic adoption agencies in Boston, Washington, D.C., and Illinois have been shut down by the government for insisting on placing kids in families with a married mother and father. Catholic business owners nationwide are now required to provide their employees with health plans that cover contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs.

Across the country, Christian florists, bakers, and photographers have been fined by government agencies for declining to serve same-sex weddings on the basis of their religious beliefs. Even Topeka has taken the first step toward such a law.

If Americans are no longer free to operate a private business without being forced by the government to provide services that violate their sincerely held religious beliefs, the question is not whether America respects religious freedom anymore. The question is whether America is America anymore.

After all, this was the first nation on earth to be founded not upon an ethnicity but upon a set of ideas. If those ideas are now defunct, this is, in some fundamental sense, another country.

While First Amendment rights long held to be sacrosanct are trumped by novelties like same-sex marriage and free birth control, Americans are still free to obtain late-term abortions legal in only three other countries in the world: North Korea, China, and Canada. Unlike religious freedom, this right is apparently inviolable.

Twenty-three years ago, Pope John Paul II wrote, “A democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.” What was dismissed by many as alarmism has taken on the appearance of prophecy.

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