The bishops are overreacting

The U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has launched its Fortnight of Freedom. The campaign was inspired the bishops’ opposition to the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act, but has morphed into something that is either grander or more grandiose, depending on one’s point of view.

The Los Angeles Times thinks the bishops have greatly exaggerated the threat to our liberties.

The bishops are free to argue, including in court, that the contraceptive mandate is a violation of the church’s rights under the 1st Amendment and a 1993 federal law known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. (This page disagrees.) But some of the church’s rhetoric has been shrill and simplistic. One bishop compared Obama to Hitler and Stalin, who, “at their better moments, would just barely tolerate some churches remaining open but would not tolerate any competition with the state in education, social services and healthcare.”

Equally excessive was the church’s response to the rejection Tuesday by North Dakota voters of a proposed Religious Freedom Amendment to the state Constitution. The measure would have allowed believers to disregard laws that offended their religious beliefs unless a “compelling government interest” were involved and the state used the least restrictive means possible to further that interest. It’s true that the amendment was modeled on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was approved overwhelmingly by Congress and signed by President Clinton. It also was subjected to farfetched attacks, such as the argument that it would allow parents who beat their children to escape punishment because they were employing “biblical discipline.”

But in reacting to the amendment’s defeat, the North Dakota Catholic Conference said, “We will not rest until religious freedom in North Dakota is protected in the law as a fundamental human right.” Robust religious freedom — including an exemption for churches and religious schools from some generally applicable laws — is already protected in North Dakota and throughout the country by the 1st Amendment and Supreme Court decisions. Like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the North Dakota amendment would have provided protection for religion over and above what the Constitution guarantees.

The bishops and other critics can cry foul about the Obama administration’s policies, but they shouldn’t cry wolf.

The Christian Century finds the bishops’ arguments wanting:

Under the First Amendment, religious believers have often been granted exemptions from general laws, such as laws requiring service in the military, or school attendance, or children’s vaccinations. But the logic of accommodation on religious grounds has never meant that the law in question—requiring military service, say, or vaccinations—is itself a violation of religious liberty and must be repealed. That is the argument that the bishops are trying to make, but it is muddled and unconvincing. As we wrote several months ago: the claims of religious consciences must be respected, but they are not a trump card that wins every argument in public policy.

One can agree, I think, with the bishops’ argument against the Obama administration’s policy as it now stands and still find this campaign excessive. What troubles me most about it is the bishops’ ongoing attempt to cast themselves as victims. They are well-educated, well-fed, well-housed, and when they disagree with something that their government does, they are in a position to make an exceedingly loud noise in Congress and in the media. Yet they persist in a narrative of oppression. This suggests that the bishops are infected with a virulent strain of the self-absorption they deplore in the rest of the culture.

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