With the sounds of protests echoing across the campus, President Barack Obama knew his 2009 commencement address at the University of Notre Dame would have to mention the religious issues that divided his listeners. "The ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt," he said. "It is beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us."
With this sweeping statement Obama essentially argued that religious faith contains no rational content and, thus, offers no concrete guidance for public actions, noted Thomas Farr, director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University. This would shock America's founding fathers or anyone else who has used religious doctrines and arguments in favor of human equality or in opposition to tyranny.
The president's views were even more troubling when combined with remarks weeks earlier at Georgetown by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said Farr, during a conference sponsored by the American Religious Freedom Program of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. The daylong event drew a variety of scholars and activists including Catholics, evangelical Protestants, Jews, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Mormons and others.
Clinton's speech contained repeated references to freedom of "worship," but none to freedom of "religion." She also argued that "people must be ... free to worship, associate, and to love in the way that they choose."
Thus, the secretary of state raised sexual liberation to the status of religion and other central human rights, said Farr. This evolving political doctrine is now shaping decisions in some U.S. courts.
"Powerful members of our political class are arguing," he noted, "that there is no rational content of religion; that religious freedom means the right to gather in worship, but not to bring religiously informed moral judgments into political life; that religious freedom must be balanced by the right to love as one chooses, and that to make religious arguments against that purported right is unconstitutional."
In other words, argued Farr and other speakers, there is more to America's current debates about religious liberty than clashes between religious groups and the Obama White House over Health and Human Services regulations that require most religious institutions to offer health-insurance plans that cover sterilizations and all FDA-approved forms of contraception, including so-called "morning-after pills."
The larger civic argument, however, focuses on whether government officials can decree that "freedom of worship" is more worthy of protection than "freedom of religion," a much broader constitutional concept.
After all, the HHS mandate recognizes the conscience rights of a religious employer only if it has the "inculcation of religious values as its purpose," "primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets" and "primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets."
In other words, "freedom of worship" protects a nun when she prays for people with AIDS, but she may not be protected by "freedom of religion" when caring for non-Catholics with AIDS in a ministry that hires non-Catholics.
"The mandate ... covers houses of worship, but leaves out the manifold ministries of charity that flow directly from that worship," stressed Baltimore Archbishop William Lori, in the conference's keynote address. "This is the first time that the federal government has compelled religious institutions to facilitate and fund a product contrary to their moral teaching."
Thus, on May 21, 43 Catholic dioceses and other organizations -- including universities and institutions that don't fit the narrow HHS exemption -- filed a wave of lawsuits against the federal government in 12 jurisdictions nationwide. A dozen or more Catholic and evangelical Protestant organizations had already filed similar lawsuits.
Many bishops have warned that, if the lawsuits fail, Catholic schools, hospitals and charities may need to close. The New York Times editorial page responded by calling the lawsuits "a dramatic stunt, full of indignation but built on air."
Nevertheless, Lori said the nation's bishops have decided to make another dramatic move -- asking all Catholic churches to ring their bells at noon on June 21st and July 4th. The hope is that other houses of worship will join in.
"As Americans," he said, "we must learn about the legacy of the founding fathers. ... As people of faith, we must mine our own religious traditions on religious freedom and share the treasures we find -- not only with our own communities -- but with society at large."