The phrase “religious freedom” seems to seep into far more political discussions than I recall from any election year in my memory. I cycle between perplexed, appalled, and frightened at what is unfolding before us in Texas, Arizona, Kansas, and other states, watching freedoms hard-gained become less accessible and downright vilified, all in the name of religious freedom and under the assumption that one’s beliefs trump another’s. As a Unitarian Universalist who holds the right to religious freedom close to her heart, I’m appalled at how that ideal is being used today.
Today, Catholics around the country, lead by a long list of bishops, will attend events named ostensibly, “Stand Up for Religious Freedom” rallies. When I first saw reference to one of these rallies, I smiled, naively creating an image of those of different religious traditions coming together to rally for greater acceptance of and tolerance for others of different faiths. I pictured Christians, Jews, Muslims, UUs, Hindus, Buddhists, Pagans, Humanists, and others gathered together. I imagined people coming together to remind themselves and the US that part of the beauty of our nation is that we are each free to choose our own faith and practice it at long as it doesn’t infringe on our neighbor’s right to do the same.
I was wrong. These rallies are products of the Catholic church, a portion of whose members (and likely a majority of their clergy) are deeply opposed to the HHS mandate requiring employers like hospitals to provide insurance that would cover comprehensive women’s health care, including contraception if the woman desires it. Even when Obama shifted the burden of payment for those services to the insurance companies, many Catholics were not mollified, and continued a cry that this is insufficient and that their religious freedoms are being are being trampled. I respect their right to gather and express their opinion. I mourn the religious intolerance behind a rally with such a hopeful name.
It all makes me even more glad to embrace a religion that understands the true meaning of that abused and misused phrase, religious freedom. The Unitarian Universalists get it, as do many other liberal traditions. As I understand it, religious freedom grants one the right to practice one’s own religion, leave one’s religion, join a different religion, ascribe to no religion at all, and speak about all those choices and religions in public. As a UU, I embrace religious freedom when that definition is used.
Religious freedom is not an escape hatch for avoiding the law governing millions nor a route to foisting individual religious beliefs onto others. It’s not a route to forcing one’s morality on another. I respect the right of other adults to choose to use or not use contraception, to not have or not have an abortion, to receive or not receive a blood transfusion, to pray or not instead of seeking medical treatment, or otherwise manage their own health care. As adult religious individuals, those choices are theirs, as are the consequences of them.
I get it that it’s about paying for the services (and I’d again hold that these services should have the same co-pays that other services have). But what happens when an opposition to coverage for birth control and abortion isn’t enough extension of religious beliefs on those of other faiths? What will be the next items nixed from insurance coverage? Opting out of just a few services opens the door for employers of all faiths to opt our of more. What’s next to go? HPV vaccinations? Treatment for Hepatitis C and B? AIDS treatment? Cervical cancer treatment? The treatment of breast cancer in women who used the Pill? These are the logical follow-ups to the path being paved today.
Religious freedom rights end where the next person’s begin. This is a fuzzy line that without constant attention can result in perceived or actual violations to either side. We are free to believe what we want to believe. When the term “religious freedom” is used. One UU principle speaks to the right of the individual to conduct a free and responsible search for meaning. This celebration of the importance of the search we all take, regardless of outcome, celebrates religious freedom.
One person’s beliefs don’t inform another person’s behavior and choices anymore than they inform another’s beliefs. When we veer from this — and we’re certainly doing that now — we deny others their freedom of religion. The religious is not the political and never should be. If there is any doubt that the blending of these will bite back, one only needs to remember a period in Britain’s history when attending other than the church du jour could result in beheading. There’s a reason religious freedom was cherished and nurtured when this country was founded. As we’ve become more diverse ethnically, racially, and religiously, we have all the more reason to remember and respect this American tenet.
My religion is just that. Mine. Yours is yours. Religious freedom exists when we remember that line between us and respect that each other’s views are valid belief structures for the other, not items to be hierarchically ranked. Neither need to threaten the other’s beliefs. If I’m awake and paying attention, I can continually learn from the beliefs of others, easing conversations and deepening respect. If I resort to a schema of religious hierarchy, assuming my choice is the one true choice, I lose this chance. Doors close. I lose contact with the neighbor that each religion calls on us to respect and love.
So while thousands or more rally today for the right to impose their beliefs on thousands or more of a variety of belief systems, I’ll reflect on true religious freedom. I’ll remember the places in the world where even today, belief in a faith other than the faith of the state means marginalization, imprisonment, or worse. I’ll look at and learn from the diverse beliefs of the people I know: Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Pagan, Jewish, Unitarian Universalist, Atheist, Buddhist, and more. And I’ll rejoice that our beliefs can continue side-by-side for as long as we continue to make that our definition of religious freedom. Now that’s a rally I’ll attend.