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The first Amendment protects religious freedom, but also freedom from religion

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In arguing the First Amendment right of employers to choose what coverage they should be exempt from providing based on conscience, the Republicans who supported the Blunt amendment (and the three Democrats who sided with them) are guilty of short-sightedness and an absence of humility.

The essence of the First Amendment is the right of all to their own interpretation of religion, not just the right to their own convictions. To maintain that order of tolerance, the First Amendment mandates that the government must not establish religion, but rather allow the practices of all people. That is "the separation of church and state." The principle does not mean, as Rick Santorum mischaracterized it recently, that religious persons are banished from expressing their opinions in the public square. It does mean that government shall make no law that encroaches on the freedom of the exercise of religion by its citizens.

But here's the rub. Government is enjoined from imposing one set of religious beliefs on a citizen who chooses another. Here is where the health care mandate becomes tricky, and the president's proposals have the high ground. They begin by exempting religious institutions from having to provide care that contravenes their principles. But Catholic hospitals and universities, unlike Catholic churches, are not religious institutions but institutions serving the public and employing large numbers of workers in that mission irrespective of their religious affiliation. Catholic belief can be an appropriate criterion for hiring a priest or a teacher in a diocesan school. It is an impermissible criterion for hiring nurses or doctors in their outward mission toward the public. In providing health care coverage for their employees, as they agree that they must do, the question must then not be, what would I choose to do, but what would preserve the employees' right to choose what they prefer.

Here is where the matter of humility is relevant. Though I firmly believe in the religion which I have chosen, dare I insist that others choose as I do, or do I allow that others, with equal righteousness, if not equal correctness, might choose otherwise? Do I insist on their right to do as they wish, even as it pains me that they do so and I argue crisply and loudly against their choice? The First Amendment, marshaled in the name of the right of the employer, in fact argues the radical right of each individual to be free of external impositions. And humility suggests that no sentient thinker think so highly of his or her own positions that they force their commitments on others.

This is where the Catholic bishops err, as do the Republican majority. They have concluded that their earnest moral commitments can be imposed upon others. Even when the president sought to allay the concerns of Catholic hospitals and universities by severing the payment chain and making contraceptive coverage the responsibility of the insurance companies, they demurred because where I have control, I hope to assure that you may not do what I would not do. This, indeed, is at the heart of the abortion debates — that my beliefs and intellectual and religious commitments must be the law of the land. That no one else may believe or behave as I would not. Far from being a First Amendment claim, this is in fact its antithesis.

In the name of humility and the religious belief in the divine image as expressed in another, in the name of the First Amendment and basic American values, it is high time to step away from authoritarian politics.

Avram Israel Reisner

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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