Most important rights are the most vulnerable

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

Those with their fingers on the pulse of popular culture might be inclined to believe that personal freedom has never been more robust than it is in 2010 America. After all, with high art like “Desperate Housewives” and “Jersey Shore” on the entertainment menu, it is fair to say that we are not exactly living in an era of great restriction on self-expression.

Or are we? Freedom of conscience is proving to be a far different matter than the freedom to exhibit bad taste. For those still lulled by a sense of complacency regarding religious liberty, a recent court case should serve as the canary in the coal mine.

On June 28, in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the University of California’s Hastings College of Law could deny recognition to the Christian Legal Society (CLS), because CLS bylaws requiring fidelity to Christian beliefs have the effect of excluding students who practice and advocate a homosexual lifestyle from holding voting or leadership positions.

This stunning decision is hardly an outlier. Earlier this year, Congress and the president approved a health care reform bill that does not prevent government agencies from discriminating against health care providers that decline involvement in abortion.

This comes on the heels of an Obama administration proposal to rescind conscience protection regulations for pro-life medical personnel.

Last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that the decision by Belmont Abbey, a Catholic college in North Carolina, to not provide contraceptives in its health plan was discriminatory.

And on it goes.

In September, while standing in the very hall where Thomas More was sentenced to death in 1535 for opposing King Henry VIII’s split with the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict warned of “a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square.”

How is it that, in a time of freedoms unimaginable in More’s day, the right of religious people to be full participants in public life is teetering on the precipice? Perhaps because some rights are more fundamental, and thus more threatening to the ruling class, than others.

Foreign policy experts once promised that the dramatically increased economic freedoms in China in the decade after Tiananmen Square would inevitably be accompanied by political freedom. That has not happened. Instead, some now wonder if this formula is the new model for 21st-century authoritarianism.

The democracies of the western world have begun to experiment with their own adaptation of compartmentalized freedom. The right to rent “Hot Tub Time Machine” is not in jeopardy. The right to adhere to orthodox Christian beliefs while working in academia, medicine, and elsewhere very much is.

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