Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Erosion of Religious Freedom


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


Connoisseurs of political kamikaze runs will long debate what finished off Martha Coakley in the recent Massachusetts election to fill the seat Edward M. Kennedy held for 47 years.

The baseball fan in me likes to think it was Coakley’s bizarre charge that Curt (“Bloody Sock”) Schilling was a Yankees fan — a gaffe in Red Sox Nation commensurate with claiming that the late Senator Kennedy had been a George W. Bush fan. Yet there was another clumsy Coakleyism that ought to have enraged a considerable part of the Bay State electorate. Pressed by an interviewer on what Catholic physicians, nurses, and other health care workers should do when they cannot in conscience provide certain services or conduct certain procedures, Coakley replied, “You can have religious freedom but you probably shouldn’t work in the emergency room.”

A month earlier, speaking at Georgetown University, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton offered a similarly diminished view of religious freedom when she declined to use that term, substituting “freedom to worship” in a catalogue of fundamental human rights that included a striking innovation. Asserting that people must be free to “choose laws and leaders, to share and access information, to speak, criticize, and debate,” the secretary of state then averred that people “must be free…to love in the way they choose.” For those with ears to hear in Gaston Hall that day, the promotion of the so-called LGBT (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered) agenda had just been declared a human rights priority of the United States, in the same sentence in which the secretary of state had offered an anorexic description of religious freedom that even the Saudis could accept (so long as the worshipping was done behind closed doors in a U.S. embassy).

One has to wonder if there is a connection here.

Religious freedom is already under assault from proponents of the LGBT agenda in Europe and Canada. Rocco Buttiglione’s convictions about the immorality of homosexual acts prevented his becoming Minister of Justice of the European Union, despite a lifetime in defense of the basic human rights of all and an explicit assurance that he would scrupulously enforce the EU’s equal-protection laws. The Canadian Revenue Agency (their IRS) has recently removed the tax-exempt status of a Calgary church, in part because it spends more than 10% of its funds and time preaching and teaching against same-sex “marriage” (and, to compound the offense, euthanasia and abortion). Anyone who imagines that this can’t happen in the Great Republic need only consider the recent efforts by the Washington, D.C. City Council to bring the Archdiocese of Washington to heel over the marriage question.

And now we have the successor of John Quincy Adams and William H. Seward, Elihu Root and Cordell Hull, George Marshall and Dean Acheson suggesting that the defense of the LGBT agenda will, as a human rights issue, be considered on a par with such basic human rights as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and religious freedom — and that no small part of the substance of religious freedom may have to be sacrificed, if necessary, to advance that agenda.

Religious freedom, rightly understood, cannot be reduced to freedom of worship. Religious freedom includes the right to preach and evangelize, to make religiously informed moral arguments in the public square, and to conduct the affairs of one’s religious community without undue interference from the state. If religious freedom only involves the freedom to worship, then, as noted above, there is “religious freedom” in Saudi Arabia, where Bibles and evangelism are forbidden but expatriate Filipino laborers can attend Mass in the U.S. embassy compound in Riyadh.

In its glory years, the State Department’s human rights bureau was a stalwart friend of those brave men and women in communist countries who were asserting, in addition to their right to worship, their rights as believers to be fully participant in society. That noble legacy should cause the present guardians of U.S. human rights policy to think very carefully about the path they seem to be taking in this field.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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