Dodging Bullets Over Religious Freedom

James Tonkowich | Columnist | Monday, July 21, 2014

Dodging Bullets Over Religious Freedom

We are dodging bullets, bullets that would be fatal to our way of life because they are aimed at our religious freedom.

We dodged a bullet (for now at least) when the Senate voted on Wednesday not to consider S. 2578. The bill, entitled “Protect Women’s Health From Corporate Interference Act of 2014,” is, as Ed Whelan of the Ethics & Public Policy Center noted, more appropriate named “The Religious Freedom Deprivation Bill.”

The bill is designed to overturn the affirmation of religious freedom in the U. S. Supreme Court’s Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision. The Court told the government that it cannot force closely held corporations to pay for abortion causing “contraceptives” in their employee health insurance plans when the corporations’ owners have religious objections. This bill would undo that decision.

Then it gets worse. Beyond contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilization, the bill specifies that there will be no religious exemptions from providing any “item or service” mandated “under any provision of Federal law or the regulations promulgated thereunder.”

As William Saunders and Mary Drury write at, “Effectively, this writes a blank check to the Obama Administration (or future administrations) to force employers to pay for insurance coverage of any drugs, devices, and services—even if that employer has a religious or consciences objection.” “Any” could include abortions including late-term abortions and physician-assisted suicide. 

The bill overturns Hobby Lobby, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), and the First Amendment. As Bishop William Lori and Sean Cardinal O’Malley of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote to the Senate before the vote, “In short, the bill does not befit a nation committed to religious liberty. Indeed, if it were to pass, it would call that commitment into question.” Let me suggest that the fact that the bill was proposed calls the commitment to religious liberty of a majority of our senators into question.

It was close: 56 to 43 with 60 needed to take up the bill. Find your senators here.

Down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Senate there are more bullets to dodge.

A few weeks ago, the White House announced that it is writing an Executive Order to ban discrimination against lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgenders (LGBTs) by anyone contracting with the federal government.

Since many Christian organizations have federal contracts, leaders of churches and groups sent the president letters. One letter asks that the president, “include explicit religious freedom protections in any executive order providing nondiscrimination guarantees for LGBT employees of federal contractors” including a “non-retaliation clause,” since “A religious exemption will only be meaningful if organizations that claim it are not punished for asserting their rights.” 

A second more conciliatory letter asking for a religious exemption was sent by another group including D. Michael Lindsay, President of Gordon College, an evangelical school north of Boston. It is perhaps ironic that this letter didn’t ask for a “non-retaliation” clause since Dr. Lindsay has been dodging bullets ever since.

Denny Burk, Professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College blogged: 

I don’t think anyone at Gordon College anticipated the backlash that would result from President Lindsay’s signature on the letter. Today [July 15], an Op-Ed in the Boston Globe says Gordon College is “dressed in a cloak of bigotry they refer to as religious freedom.” Some of Gordon’s own students and alumni are unhappy, and there is now an online petition calling on President Lindsay to remove his signature from the letter. The school’s accrediting agency has announced its intention to investigate whether Gordon College meets requirements for diversity and non-discrimination. The mayor of Salem has terminated a contract with Gordon College now that the college “advocates for discrimination against the LGBT community.”

Lindsay defended himself in an open letter to the Gordon College community: “Signing the letter was in keeping with our decades-old conviction that, as an explicitly Christian institution, Gordon should set the conduct expectations for members of our community. Nothing has changed in our position.” 

But a great deal has changed in the culture outside and inside Gordon College. For many evangelicals and Catholics, sexual liberation now trumps biblical and Church teachings.

To be fair, accreditation agency, The New England Association of Schools & Colleges, has told Lindsay that when a school is in the headlines, it’s common procedure to ask questions and the college is not in imminent danger of losing their accreditation. Another bullet dodged at least for now. But for how much longer?

Sad to say the letters and Dr. Lindsay’s tribulations appear to have been for naught. Given the choice between religious freedom and sexual expression, President Obama picked sexual expression. The Executive Order announced Friday and signed Monday contains no exceptions for faith-based contractors.

It makes you wonder how long we can try to dodge bullets before our religious freedom is little more than a faint memory.

Publication date: July 21, 2014