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Catholic Bishops’ Straw Man on Religious Freedom

April 15, 2012, 8:13 am | Posted by Nick Sementelli

Reading the USCCB’s statement on religious freedom from last week, I was struck by this line in particular:

…as Christians of various traditions we object to a “naked public square,” stripped of religious arguments and religious believers. We do not seek a “sacred public square” either, which gives special privileges and benefits to religious citizens. Rather, we seek a civil public square, where all citizens can make their contribution to the common good. At our best, we might call this an American public square.

This characterization matches the Bishops’ consistent talking point that the current debate is not about the details of birth control policy, but rather about whether religious freedom should exist. The implication, of course, is that anyone who disagrees with their particular interpretation of this policy is actually objecting to the First Amendment.

But this is a false dichotomy. Yes, there are some people who think the public square should be “stripped of religious arguments and religious believers,” but it’s hardly an overwhelming view, and it’s certainly not the view of many of us who have offered nuanced critiques of the Bishops’ position. To suggest as much is to simply dismiss legitimate questions without answering them.

Even more interesting though, is the second part of the quote in which the Bishops alternately reject the idea of a “sacred public square” that gives “special privileges” to religious citizens. But this is exactly the language many perceptive observers use to characterize the Bishops’ position. Ed Kilgore lays it out well:

What the bishops are actually seeking is not “freedom” but a sort of unwritten concordat—a broad zone of immunity from laws they choose to regard as offensive. Now there is nothing terribly unusual or inherently outrageous about this desire; Vatican diplomacy for centuries has focused on the establishment of such arrangements—though typically written rather than plenary—with a wide array of governments. It’s the idea that this sort of arrangement involves “freedom” rather than frankly acknowledged special privileges that’s novel. [emphasis added]

The heart of the matter, of course, is defining what exactly is a “special privilege” (and subsequently when should they be granted). Is any request for an exemption from an otherwise generally applicable law special? Or is it, as the Bishops seem to say, only descriptive of exceptions that fall outside of the scope of those they choose to designate as matters of religious freedom?

In either case it’s clear that the issue is not as simple as the Bishops portray it to be. As the Blunt amendment debate revealed, religious freedom as an unlimited principle is an untenable solution. But neither are its limits self-evident. As the editors at Commonweal identify in their editorial on this statement, “Church-state relations are complicated, requiring the careful weighing of competing moral claims. The USCCB’s statement fails to acknowledge that fact.”

Negotiating this tricky balance is the messy work of democracy. It’s fair to take issues with particular attempts to strike that balance, but it’s unfair to broadly claim that those who disagree with you object to religious freedom at large.

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