Wesley J. Smith: Freedom of Worship’s Assault on Freedom of Religion

– From the essay:

Freedom of religion means the right to live according to one’s own faith, that is, to “manifest” our religion or belief in practice, both “in public or private,” without interference from the state.

Strident secularism is on the march and freedom of religion is the target, with secularist warriors attempting to drive religious practice behind closed doors by redefining religious liberty down to a hyper-restricted, “freedom of worship.”

Source: First Things On the Square | By Wesley J. Smith

Until very recently, the West saw religious liberty as a weight-bearing pillar of human freedom. Thus, the very first clause of the First Amendment (1789) states,

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

More broadly, Article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) provides:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

That’s unequivocal. Freedom of religion means the right to live according to one’s own faith, that is, to “manifest” our religion or belief in practice, both “in public or private,” without interference from the state.

These days, that and $2 will buy you a small cup of Starbucks coffee. Strident secularism is on the march and freedom of religion is the target, with secularist warriors attempting to drive religious practice behind closed doors by redefining religious liberty down to a hyper-restricted, “freedom of worship.”

What’s the difference? Under freedom of worship, the Catholic and Orthodox churches both remain perfectly free to teach that the Eucharistic bread and wine transform into the body and blood of Christ. Muslims can continue to require women to be segregated from men at the mosque. But outside worship contexts, the state may compel the faithful to violate their faith by acting in accord with secular morality rather than consistently with their dogmatic precepts.

These assaults on religious practice are becoming increasingly commonplace. For example, a German trial judge recently outlawed the circumcision of children on the basis that the “fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents”, to carry out their religious beliefs.

Circumcision is controversial today, but redefining the rite into “mutilation” or “child abuse” is blatant secular imperialism. For millennia, faith adherents have believed that circumcision is done for boys (rather than to them). Indeed, prohibiting the rite deprives male children of these faiths a religious benefit to which they are entitled while dispossessing them of a core aspect of their personal identity.

Jewish and Muslim religious practice is also under assault in the Netherlands, where a new law may outlaw methods of animal slaughter that comply with the obligations of kosher and halal. Religious liberty? What’s that? The atheist bioethicist Peter Singer sniffed that Jews and Muslims who don’t like the ban should just become vegetarians, writing that since the ban would not prohibit worship practices, no freedoms are being infringed.

We see the same freedom of worship assault against freedom of religion in President Obama’s “Free Birth Control Rule.” The Affordable Care Act now requires that most employers provide their workers with free contraception, sterilization, and other reproductive services. True, the rule exempted religious employers that oppose contraception, but the shield was drafted so narrowly that—surprise, surprise—it only protects freedom of worship. Specifically, to qualify for a religious exemption:

  1. The “inculcation of religious values” must be the employer’s “purpose” for existing;
  2. The employer must “primarily” employ “persons who share its religious tenets.”
  3. The employer must “primarily” serve “persons who share its religious tenets.”

Lest there be any doubt, the rule further states, “Specifically, the Departments seek to provide for a religious accommodation that respects the unique relationship between a house of worship and its employees in ministerial positions.” Thus, the group health insurance covering nuns in a Catholic religious order would probably not have to cover contraception. But insurance provided by the order’s elementary school employees, probably would.

Religious liberty is also under assault from efforts to eviscerate the right of medical conscience. Victoria, Australia, for example, legally compels every doctor to participate in abortion—even if morally or religiously opposed—either by doing the deed when asked, or referring the pregnant patient to a doctor they know supports abortion. The Dutch Medical Association (KNMG) recently promulgated a similar ethical rule requiring all Dutch doctors to kill, or if opposed on religious or moral grounds, refer when legally qualified patients ask to be euthanized. In other words, the affected doctors are free to believe that participating in abortion and euthanasia are egregious sins; they just can’t legally or ethically escape so sinning and remain in practice.

At this point in the discussion, opponents of freedom of religion may bring up the Aztecs, arguing that a robust view of religious liberty would require allowing children to be sacrificed to pagan gods. Not so. Even fundamental liberties are not absolute. The law properly prohibits religious practice when there is a compelling government interest. For example, the state can force a Jehovah’s Witness child to be given life-saving blood transfusions even though doing so violates Witness dogma.

Here’s the bottom line. If the freedom of worship assault against freedom of religion succeeds, creed-motivated philanthropic and service organizations such as the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, and religiously sponsored schools, hospitals, nursing homes, pregnancy counseling centers, etc., will be forced to choose between acting contrary to their faith and closing their doors. That would not only make our society far less free, but would materially harm the millions of men, women, and children whose lives are immeasurably benefited by faithful people practicing their religion in the public square.


Peter Singer, The use and abuse of religious freedom

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism, and consults for the Patients Rights Council and the Center for Bioethics and Culture.


  1. M. Stankovich :

    It seems to me that if you intend to make a credible argument, you would at least speak to the “bottom-line” factually.

    If you intend to propose the “Free Birth Control Rule” as indicative of impending threat to our liberty, then first explain the EEOC’s ruling in December, 2000, mandating coverage of prescription contraceptives for a group of nurses who filed claim citing discrimination:

    There is reasonable cause to believe that Respondents have engaged in an unlawful employment practice in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, by failing to offer insurance coverage for the cost of prescription contraceptive drugs and devices. Charging Parties are entitled to reimbursement of the costs of their prescription contraceptives for the applicable back pay period. In addition, the District Office is instructed to determine whether any cognizable damages have resulted from Respondents’ actions.

    In order to avoid violating Title VII in the future:

    Respondents must cover the expenses of prescription contraceptives to the same extent, and on the same terms, that they cover the expenses of the types of drugs, devices, and preventive care identified above. Respondents must also offer the same coverage for contraception-related outpatient services as are offered for other outpatient services. Where a woman visits her doctor to obtain a prescription for contraceptives, she must be afforded the same coverage that would apply if she, or any other employee, had consulted a doctor for other preventive or health maintenance services. Where, on the other hand, Respondents limit coverage of comparable drugs or services (e.g., by imposing maximum payable benefits), those limits may be applied to contraception as well.

    Respondents’ coverage must extend to the full range of prescription contraceptive choices. Because the health needs of women may change — and because different women may need different prescription contraceptives at different times in their lives — Respondents must cover each of the available options for prescription contraception. Moreover, Respondents must include such coverage in each of the health plan choices that it offers to its employees. See 29 C.F.R. part 1604, App. Q&A 24; Arizona Governing Committee v. Norris, 463 U.S. 1073, 1081-82 n.10 (1983).

    To say that “The Dutch Medical Association (KNMG) recently promulgated” an ethical rule requiring physicians to “kill” or refer against their moral beliefs is a gross misrepresentation: this was proposed and rejected in June, 2011. It seems to me there is considerable distinction between “promulgate” and “consider.” The KNMG position paper, The Role of the Physician in the Voluntary Termination of Life (easily available from the homepage of their website) is unequivocal:

    if a physician is not prepared to consider a euthanasia request from his patient then he also should not initiate the procedure. In that case, it is his duty to put his patient in touch with a colleague who does not have fundamental objec­tions to euthanasia and assisted suicide. Though there is no legal obliga­tion to refer patients, there is a moral and professional duty to provide patients with timely assistance in finding a physician (for example, within the clinic) who does not have fundamental objections to euthanasia and assisted suicide.

    And finally, to the truly absurd, “slaughter practices” and “circumcision?” Seriously? If I wanted to build an argument on “case law,” I certainly would shy away from every harebrained, soon-to-be-overturned ruling in an otherwise obscure court:

    (BBC) Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has told her party that it risked becoming a “laughing stock” after a court in Cologne ruled that religious circumcision was a criminal act. “I do not want Germany to be the only country in the world in which Jews cannot practice their rites,” Merkel was quoted as saying this week. “Otherwise we would make ourselves a laughing stock.” The Cologne case involved a doctor who was taken to court after he circumcised a four-year old Muslim boy, resulting in minor complications. The court acquitted the doctor of causing grievous bodily harm, but it found that “the right of parents to raise their children in a religion does not override the right of a child to bodily integrity.” The ruling has no legal bearing on other cases, but some fear it could be used as a precedent. It may mean that families will have to wait until their sons are over the age of consent before they can be circumcised.

    Or another “proposal” to ban kosher and halal slaughter that was defeated by a margin of more than 2-1 in both houses of the Dutch Parliament.

    Do not misinterpret my indignation as disagreement that we should not be concerned with government incursion into our Constitutionally-protected separation of Church and state. My indignation is to your fabricating a threat at the hands of “secularist warriors” when you assault even your friends with the repugnant “tactics” of “spin” and disinformation of the truth. Like a skunk loosed in the “think-tank,” everybody ends up stinking equally.

  2. Wesley J. Smith :

    Thanks for your helpful suggestions on how to write an article. I’ll keep it in mind.

    Here’s the link to the KNMG position paper, and there is nothing on the Web site, that says it was rejected. http://knmg.artsennet.nl/Publicaties/KNMGpublicatie/Position-paper-The-role-of-the-physician-in-the-voluntary-termination-of-life-2011.htm

    If it was reversed by the membership, I am most pleased. But I have not heard about that. Please supply a link. You see, sometimes people make mistakes. That isn’t the same thing as spinning. Still, I can’t help but notice that this appears on the official KNMG web site: “adopted by the Board of the Federation and effective as from 23 June 2011.” I looked, and saw nothing about it being repealed or rejected.

    As to the German ruling, Merkel wants to overturn it. Whether she can, remains to be seen. It currently stands.

    As for the slaugher issue, note I said that it “may” outlaw the slaughter practices. Here is how Peter Singer described it. The Dutch parliament has given the leaders a year to prove that their religions’ prescribed methods of slaughter cause no more pain than slaughter with prior stunning. If they cannot do so, the requirement to stun before slaughtering will be implemented.
    Read more: http://host.madison.com/news/opinion/column/article_b95c35b6-b72c-11e1-86be-0019bb2963f4.html#ixzz211tscBfp

    I find Singer odious, but he is not usually wrong about his facts.

    Chill, bro.

    • M. Stankovich :

      My comment that this “proposal” was rejected came from a colleague – a UK citizen who has been practicing medicine in Amsterdam since prior to the law – who has since clarified for me a very specific point: what was rejected was the notion of an actual penalty for refusal to participate or refer (i.e. a civil penalty or jeopardy to licensing). You refer to the position paper I have directly quoted above, but have transformed it to say “they just can’t legally or ethically escape so sinning and remain in practice.” Obviously we have some significant difference of interpretation as to the meaning of the term “legally.” And so I find you “promulgating” all over the internet that the KNMG had seriously considered “compelling” physicians to act against their moral sense or jeopardize their livelihood. This is patently false. Nothing prevents a Dutch physician from acting according to conscience.

      I would further direct you to the July 10, 2012 issue of the British medical journal, The Lancet, and the article, “Trends in end-of-life practices before and after the enactment of the euthanasia law in the Netherlands from 1990 to 2010: a repeated cross-sectional survey,” by Onwuteaka-Philipsen BD, et al.; and the June 13, 2012 issue of Palliative Medicine, and the article, “Opinions of health care professionals and the public after eight years of euthanasia legislation in the Netherlands: A mixed method approach,” by Kouwenhoven PS, et al. In the first, they demonstrate that “opening the door” has not resulted in any significant rise in physician-assisted-suicide (PAS) longitudinally, and in the second, the public is much more liberal than physicians, and overall, healthcare providers generally believed what the laws permits does not reflect what physicians actually endorse.

      And you might relate to Mr. Singer – however odious he might be – that the Upper House of the Dutch Parliament settled the slaughter issue with a vote of 51-21 to reject the ban on halal/kosher slaughter, I believe just last week, to end the issue.

      Shame on a brotha’ what try to run game on a brotha’ – I’m always chill when you trae the truth, bro.

      • Wesley J. Smith :

        Very funny. I laughed out loud.

        In other words the opinion remains. Eventually I think it will become law like the Victoria abortion law. Glad the Dutch upper house acted. But the point remains valid.


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