Authoritarian governments - whether religious or secular - have long sought to curb or even to extinguish religious liberty. On the other hand, the limited American government established by our Constitution respects the institutions of our civil society - including, especially, religious institutions. The American Founding Fathers believed that strong religious congregations and vibrant faith communities were essential to ordered liberty. As a result, Americans have long enjoyed the fullest religious liberty in the world and we have reaped the benefits of a flourishing civil society rooted in that religious freedom.
Compared to the era of our founding, more and more power is now being centralized in the national government. Today, for example, many policies that affect local public schools are made in Washington. As creeping centralization slowly overcomes the Constitution's federal design, the national government has begun to restrict the freedom of religion that is an indispensable element of the American founding.
These restrictions are, thankfully, not like the violent assaults on religious liberty in places like Iran, Pakistan and China. But just as a homeowner should be concerned about the security of his home's foundation before a river spills over its banks, so we should beware the danger of erosion in the foundation of American freedom. By imposing a judgment where it ought to respect religious liberty, the overreaching government threatens the freedom of all religious communities.
One of the most sweeping centralizations of power in U.S. history came with President Obama's health care overhaul in 2010, often referred to as "Obamacare." The law prescribes what patients must buy, what insurers must offer, and what kind of health care coverage employers must cover. It offers no way out.
The massively complex 2,700-page law will require thousands more pages of regulation to implement in the coming years. One of the first rules issued under Obamacare came in August 2011, when the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, proposed requiring nearly all insurance plans to cover - at no cost to the insured - abortion-inducing drugs, contraception and sterilization.
Many Americans are deeply troubled by abortion-inducing drugs, such as the morning-after pill - what some call "emergency contraception." Others object on religious grounds to the use of contraception. Yet in its final rule, issued in February 2012, the Obama administration offered just the narrowest of exemptions, shielding only houses of worship from the state's requirements that violate their conscience. Religious employers - such as Catholic hospitals, Christian schools, and faith-based soup kitchens - do not qualify for the exemption and will have to provide the abortion-inducing drugs to which they object. Failing to comply with the mandate will result in massive fines.
The rule provoked intense, widespread, and sustained opposition from Catholic, Protestant and Jewish groups, as well as others.
Now that the Supreme Court has allowed Obamacare to stand, the full weight of the massive health care law will begin to press on American's freedoms. One of the first places that will be felt is on religious liberty as the HHS mandate on abortion drugs and contraception undermines the rights of countless employers and individuals to choose health plans that align with their moral and religious beliefs. As the coercive mandate's enforcement continues, so too will more than 20 federal lawsuits against the rule, as dozens of organizations, businesses and individuals demand the respect of their first freedom.
In the controversy over the Obamacare mandate, some of the clearest arguments on religious liberty have come from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The bishops have argued not simply for an expanded exemption from the anti-conscience mandate that would cover their religious ministries. They urge an end to the mandate altogether, since it imposes inappropriately on the freedom of conscience of all Americans. Special exemptions are inadequate. When a policy threatens religious liberty, it often threatens freedom more generally. It shows that the government has outgrown its limits and is placing the foundations of American society at risk.
Religious freedom requires that the government does not interfere with religious faith and the charitable works it inspires. If a government is truly limited, friction with religious institutions and individuals will be rare. Of course, occasionally, tensions between faith and state may arise even under a limited government. The Founding Fathers counted on these tensions to keep the state in check.
When the American government and religion clash regularly, the problem is the rise of the unlimited state, a problem that endangers the foundations of American society. The conflict between faith and state in the U.S. is civil, not thankfully, violent, as it is elsewhere around the world. But our conflicts are civil because of the order we established under the Constitution. The best way to preserve social and religious peace in America is to respect the constitutional order, and ensure that government remains limited.
Understanding American freedom today means recognizing that, while limited government is essential to securing liberty, a government that is big enough to cross any line is big enough to take liberty away.
William Perugino is active in local and regional politics and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.