by Edward Vacek
From “madness” to “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty.” American bishops praise Cardinal John Gibbons for bringing the message of religious freedom to Rome in 1887, but tend to overlook the then well-established opposition to such a notion. Popes Gregory XVI, Pius IX, and Leo XIII all condemned the idea of religious liberty, and one proclamation even declared it adeliramentum—that is, an insanity. Only in 1965, at Vatican II, did the shift come. The traditional argument against religious freedom was that error (that is, non-Catholic religion) has no rights. Vatican II said error might not have rights but people do, and one of those rights is to worship as one sees fit; to force people to turn away from the religion to which they think God calls them is to violate their consciences, and thus to force them to sin.
In the United States, various faith-affiliated groups have since come to invoke religious liberty to justify a range of practices and activities (the refusal of a bakery to provide cakes for same-sex weddings being one well-publicized example). The rhetoric can become particularly overheated when it comes to the birth-control provisions of the Affordable Care Act. On one side are the Little Sisters of the Poor, who with the support of some thirty organizations claim that big government is forcing them to violate their religion and whose case was heard by the Supreme Court this year. (In this essay, I will use the Little Sisters as short-hand for the others. Potentially this group could be vastly expanded to include Hobby Lobby–like groups as well.) On the other side are supporters of the ACA’s birth-control provisions, arguing that women should not be discriminated against merely because their employer is religious.
First Amendment issues are notoriously tricky. Religious liberty can be used to protect unpopular but good practices, such as wearing the hijab.