This week, two things have come to my attention that warrant a brief reflection on Orthodox Christianity and religious freedom here in America. First, there is the recent debate concerning the HHS’s mandate that all religious institutions, except actual houses of worship, must pay for oral contraceptive and sterilization procedures, regardless of that religion’s views on the matter. The Roman Catholic Church has been at the center of most of the discussion. Given the size of Catholic Charities, this is no accident and I’m glad to see that people are having to realize just how much work they do. Nonetheless, it affects all religious institutions, not just Christian ones and certainly not just Roman Catholic ones. The Orthodox bishops in America also put out a statement concerning this, which may be found here:
I am glad to see that our bishops did not remain silent. The free practice of religion is a first amendment RIGHT! Furthermore, the free practice thereof is not limited to what one might happen to pray in a “house of worship” or behind one’s closed door at home. The free practice is the free practice. This applies to everyone, from the typical Protestant Christian, to those of us Orthodox who have been around since AD 33. Likewise, I believe it even allows people to have the freedom from religion. No one should be legislated to agree with all of my Orthodox moral choices or to HAVE to come to my parish. Since this freedom applies to the free practice, however, it means if we open a parish school, we are free to teach the religion class as an Orthodox class. It also means our Orthodox institutions may act morally consistent with their faith. Anytime the gov’t wishes to impede on that right, the gov’t must bear the burden of proof for demonstrating why it must be so impeded in that case.
This leads me to North Dakota. In June, we will be able to vote for the Religious Freedom Restoration Amendment to our state’s constitution. More information on that may be found here:
I hope this amendment passes. Why? Well, here’s why. The highest level of constitutional protection is “strict scrutiny.” It’s a high standard. To satisfy it, the government must show (1) there is a “compelling governmental interest” and (2) the restriction is “narrowly-tailored.” The North Dakota (proposed) amendment explicitly uses the phrase “compelling government interest” and implies the “narrowly-tailored” concept through the phrase, “least restrictive means.” This is all good. It SHOULD be the gov’t’s problem to have to prove why a proposed infringement is compelling. That’s all the amendment is stating and so it really should pass. When it comes to basic first amendments freedoms, they are basic. May we never want a gov’t that does not have to provide compelling reasons to infringe upon them!
Now, is it perfect? No. The language of the proposed amendment does raise a couple questions in mind. Specifically, it does not state to whom the state must demonstrate this compelling interest. Presumably, this would be before a judge, but it’s left unstated. Does the gov’t go to judge and ask for permission to infringe before it infringes or is this backward looking, something meant to give the religious group a means to press back against the gov’t after the infringement? In either case, I still support the amendment because getting religious freedom more firmly established is not a bad thing.
See, we Orthodox know just how difficult it can be to have religious freedom. In Alaska, we did not always have it. America purchased Alaska in 1867 and some local leaders were doubling as Protestant missionaries and believed it was their job to turn Native Orthodox Alaskans into American Protestants (ht to the Presbyterians and Methodists). Also, we had to take up the cause of selective service recognition, going past local and state boards in New York, all the way to Washington, D.C. “EO” (for “Eastern Orthodox”) wasn’t stamped on dog tags before the winter of 1942-1943. We had to argue that we were a real religion with a real history.
For a brief summary of that event, see here:
[I’m working on an article on that event. There’s a lot to the story, but it was a real fight for our rights.]
Religious freedom should never be taken for granted.