Op-Ed

Kentucky voices: Even atheists should want to protect religious liberty

All lovers of liberty — liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, believers and even atheists — have a stake in the current and escalating war against religious freedom in the United States.

In 2009, President Barack Obama, followed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, subtly yet tellingly changed their pronouncements on human rights. Instead of "freedom of religion," they began to speak of "freedom of worship" — not an insignificant change.

Religion is a weighty term. What comes to mind when we say of an acquaintance, "She is religious," versus "She attends worship"? We save "religious" for those in whom their faith makes a visible difference outside of one hour on Sunday morning. While a religious person certainly worships regularly, not all who attend worship are particularly religious.

The religious person teaches Sunday School, volunteers at the food pantry, prays with her children, gives significant financial support to her church, reads Scriptures, believes her church's doctrinal and moral teaching and more. One can be a "Christmas and Easter Christian," however, and still say, "I worship God."

Religion includes worship, but with religion comes much more, for example, Scriptures, creeds, moral and dogmatic teachings, traditions, benevolent work and giving, and organization. By striking a different note, the Obama administration changed the tune on religious freedom.

The new melody is dissonant with the Constitution and has caused discord between the Obama administration and religious communities. The administration has acted consistently with the new language, in effect telling religious organizations, "Believe what you want on Sunday mornings, but your faith cannot influence you the rest of the week."

In the recent Supreme Court Case Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Department of Justice filed a brief arguing that the First Amendment does not entail any "ministerial exception" whereby religious employers are exempted from governmental interference in determining who serves the faithful.

This position was so at odds with the Constitution that in January the Supreme Court rejected it in a rare 9-0 decision.

Not even Justice Elena Kagan, Obama's former solicitor general, accepted the administration's arguments.

Such a round rejection should have changed the administration's approach to religious liberty, but it keeps playing the same new song. After the Hosanna-Tabor decision, Obama's Department of Health and Human Services issued guidelines requiring all non-grandfathered health plans to provide "all Food and Drug Administration approved contraceptive methods, sterilization procedures, and patient education and counseling."

Diverse religious communities, most notably the Roman Catholic Church but also including Protestants, Muslims and Jews, have protested the new rules because they force religious organizations to pay for medications and procedures they find immoral.

In recent weeks, the administration has offered a few narrow exceptions and concessions, but none of these adequately address the fundamental objections and concerns of religious communities.

The Hosanna-Tabor case and HHS mandate are just the most recent in a string of the Obama administration's efforts against religious freedom. Their consistent message to religious organizations is, "Stop being so religious."

Everyone should care about the attack on religious freedom. Our founders understood that government innately tends to extend its influence and power. Protections are therefore necessary to preserve institutions that limit the governmental self-empowerment that threatens true democracy and free society.

Religion, the press, voluntary associations, the local community, and the household protect from totalitarianism and thus in turn merit protections. The erosion of religious liberty makes the United States a place less fertile for all kinds of liberty. Religion is an ally in protecting the freedom of all — even the nonreligious.

The west has heard Obama's tune before. Stalin understood that religious freedom stood in the way of total governmental authority and thus put severe restrictions on religion. So, too, did the Roman Caesars understand, therefore mandating sacrifice to them as gods. The erosion of religious freedom is one step closer to the government claiming the place of God whether implicitly or explicitly.

Atheists: Listen to the music, and speak out along with your fellow citizens against the battle on religious liberty.

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