Why conservatives fight against threats to religious liberty and rights of conscience

     The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia was the site of the event

    The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia was the site of the event "The Manhattan Declaration: Religious Liberty in Philadelphia." (Eric Walter/WHYY)

    When I learned about a meeting of seriously bright, faith-based minds at “The Manhattan Declaration: Religious Liberty in Philadelphia,” an event suitably situated at the National Constitution Center last week, I registered with one question in mind: Is there really a threat to religious freedom today?

    First, a word about the “Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience.” This petition, widely published late in 2009, urged both the Church and the public to recognize the sanctity of life, traditional marriage and religious liberty complete with rights of conscience. The document was signed by 148 orthodox, Catholic and evangelical Christian leaders and laymen.

    Here’s a paragraph from the petition that sums up the group’s concerns:

    While the whole scope of Christian moral concern, including a special concern for the poor and vulnerable, claims our attention, we are especially troubled that in our nation today the lives of the unborn, the disabled, and the elderly are severely threatened; that the institution of marriage, already buffeted by promiscuity, infidelity and divorce, is in jeopardy of being redefined to accommodate fashionable ideologies; that freedom of religion and the rights of conscience are gravely jeopardized by those who would use the instruments of coercion to compel persons of faith to compromise their deepest convictions.

    Faith and morality anchor liberty

    Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput spoke softly but carried a big stick in addressing the religious liberty issue at the forum. “The cornerstones of U.S. freedoms are faith and its practice,” Chaput said. “Our system works because of the moral assumptions that anchor it.”

    Religion was both a personal and a social practice for the founders, he added. “Freedom of religion is more than the right to worship. Threats are not imaginary or overstated,” Chaput declared before noting the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ coercion with Obamacare and IRS threats to the tax status of religious organizations.

    Marriage, life and human sexuality are rooted in natural law, Chaput said. Today, human nature is being treated as if it was “modeling clay” in order to redefine it, he added. Critics of religion reduce 2,000 years of moral reasoning and religious conviction to a “subjective belief,” the archbishop lamented. Then they label these deeply held beliefs “bias” or “hate speech.”

    Attorney Alan Sears, who leads the Alliance Defending Freedom legal ministry, backed up Archbishop Chaput’s assertion about efforts to intimidate the religious by rattling off court cases. Some involved small or large business owners who faced enormous fines for refusing to comply with Obamacare mandates concerning contraceptives that could be abortifacients.

    Other individuals’ conscience rights were violated after they refused to breach their religious beliefs about abortion or same sex marriage. “These people are not troublemakers,” just law-abiding citizens, said Sears. Among them are: nurses at a New Jersey hospital, as well as Vanderbilt University nursing students, who were told they must assist in abortions; a pharmacist who refused to provide the abortion pill; and a photographer, a baker, a florist and a T-shirt maker, who each declined to provide services for same-sex marriage ceremonies.

    Some of them are people like me, I thought. While I’m still sorting through the rapidly moving same-sex marriage issue, this former pro-choicer is unapologetically pro-life after pregnancies, a miscarriage at four months, my daughter’s ultrasound picture and lots of research. If someone dictated that I participate in abortions, I would go into fight, not flight, mode.

    The right to oppose same-sex marriage

    The same-sex marriage issue was addressed at the gathering by professor Robert George, Princeton University’s McCormick Chair in Jurisprudence and founding director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions; Sherif Girgis, who is a Princeton Ph.D. candidate, Yale J.D. candidate and Rhodes scholar; and The Heritage Foundation’s Ryan Anderson. This trio co-authored “What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense.”

    George, Girgis and Anderson raised the question whether marriage is ultimately a romantic relationship or a conjugal union between a man and a woman that creates and nurtures children. They conclude that marriage is the latter.

    The redefinition of marriage, with its assumptions that men and women are interchangeable, puts the focus on adult romance rather than children’s well-being, Anderson said. That, and studies cited by The Heritage Foundation indicating that youngsters fare better with a father and a mother, leads these scholars to conclude that same-sex marriage is not in the best interest of children.

    After a collective shudder went through the hall at being associated in any way with the late, notoriously nasty Pastor Fred Phelps, whose attitude toward gays and U.S. soldiers was disgraceful, Anderson noted the importance of living the truth in marriage in our own lives.

    That’s a good place to start, I thought.

    Oppression of religious expression

    As for my first concern about religious liberty in the land of the free, attempts are being made to silence people of faith like me. And, like most individuals, I don’t like being bullied.

    Whenever push for societal change feels like shove, I return to my favorite C.S. Lewis quotation, “Progress means not just changing, but changing for the better.” Denial of anyone’s U.S. Constitutional rights, like freedom of speech and religion, is for the worse and not the better.

    So, bullies beware. Time, like fashion, can be fickle. What’s in vogue today might not be tomorrow. History more than suggests that totalitarianism can come back to bite the oppressor. Did you see today’s news? The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that town councils can open their sessions with prayer.

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