U.S./ More on religious freedom, the Bishops, politics, and the Commonweal editorial

Richard Garnett

RICHARD GARNETT discusses the Bishop’s statement on religious freedom, and whether or not it is, or can be perceived as, partisan, responding to reactions from the public. 

Pubblicazione: giovedì 26 aprile 2012 - Ultimo aggiornamento: lunedì 30 aprile 2012, 23.22

Paul (and Doug Laycock) are right, of course, that (a) Republicans and other Administrations and actors have sometimes infringed on the freedom of religion and (b) Democrats and this Administration have done some things that respect and support this freedom.  But, and again, the Statement did not, in my view, suggest otherwise.  The Statement is not rendered partisan, in my view, by the fact that (at present) the policies and proposals of one party pose more of a threat to religious freedom than do the policies and proposals of the other (and to point out this fact is, of course, not to pretend that the other party is immune from criticism on any number of fronts).    

The editorial says that "[t]he bishops’ description of the various threats to religious freedom conflates a number of disparate federal, state, and judicial actions into an allegedly unified and urgent peril" and that their "argument is hyperbolic."  I don't think it is.  As I read the statement, it reasonably used a number of distinct examples -- of distinct "federal, state, and judicial actions" -- to illustrate the point that it is religious freedom of all, and not just the particular interests of a few particular people in an occasional, discrete case, that seems to be increasingly undervalued.  It is the case, in my view, that there is a general move toward (a) the view that religious freedom does not extend much beyond the freedom to believe and worship, in the "private" sphere; (b) the view that an expansive understanding of the antidiscrimination norm outweighs the religious-freedom rights of persons and institutions (see my "Confusion About Discrimination", here); and (c) the view that a condition of religious communities' activities in the "public" sphere, or of their cooperation with government on social-welfare projects, should be compliance with the norms that (appropriately) are observed by government actors.  This general move is, I believe, a threat to religious freedom, it is manifesting itself in many ways and at many levels, and the bishops are right to be concerned about it.

Now, I agree almost entirely with the Commonweal editorial's concluding paragraph:

“For their effort to be effective, the bishops’ campaign must be seen to be nonsectarian and independent of electoral politics. Adding anti-Islamic prejudice to their list of concerns would help in that regard. The 'grand campaign' should also begin and end with a frank admission about the complexity of church-state relations. No government can accommodate every conceivable religious practice or belief, nor does the Catholic Church have a strong record of supporting accommodation of other religious communities. In their simplistic rhetoric, the bishops sound more like politicians than pastors. As Campbell and Putnam warn, if religious freedom becomes a partisan issue, its future is sure to grow dimmer.”

U.S./ More on religious freedom, the Bishops, politics, and the Commonweal editorial