The religious liberty debate reaches a greater level of complexity when we turn to the “hot button” issues of abortion or LGBTQ rights.
In general, Catholic hospitals and health care organizations have not been forced to perform abortions. There has been occasional push back by individuals and organizations but the courts have respected the religious liberty of the Catholic hospitals. Religiously motivated legislators in many states have passed laws that limit the ability of health care providers to perform abortions under certain conditions or require pre-abortion educational programming to ensure informed consent. Some of these legal measures have passed muster in the courts and others have not.
The key issue here is not that the religious liberty of the church is being infringed by legalized abortion, if Catholic hospitals are not put in a position where they are required by the state to perform or materially cooperate in abortions. Neither is it an issue of the Church trying to impose its religious beliefs on the broader community. It boils down to what is the “common good” for which the State is responsible?
The “common good” on this issue is difficult to identify because several compelling rights are in conflict. One of the compelling rights is the right to life. The Declaration of Independence, as a founding document of the United States, asserts the right to life as unalienable, as does the teaching of the Catholic Church from the earliest days. Most laws enforce the right to life from the time of birth forward.
Prior to Row v. Wade, many states also saw the right extending back to pre-birth and prohibited abortion, viewing it as a form of homicide and a violation of the baby’s right to life. The Church makes no formal claim as to when human life begins but it can be anytime from conception onward, so to be safe it teaches that the right to life should be honored from conception onward. The Church actively opposes abortion and works to limit access to abortion as a legal right. In this sense, the Church uses its religious liberty to oppose the liberty of others, though it does so because it sees abortion as a violation of the most fundamental liberty/right…the right to life. It also does so in a manner that is consistent with its religious liberties and the rights of all; to speak out in the public forum and to appeal to legislators.
On the other hand, the people who are “pro-choice” make the argument that one of the most fundamental rights a person has is to have control over their own body. Such control over one’s body is seen as a basic element of human dignity. The lack of such control over one’s body is seen as reducing the person to little more than a slave subject to the decisions and desires of another.
Again, there are complications. Within the Catholic tradition the right to life is paramount but there are times when the “common good” take precedence. The right to self-defense and the concept of a just war provide two exceptions where the “common good” limits the absolute right to life. In a similar manner, the “common good” can take precedence over the right to have absolute control over one’s body. If a government provides for conscription into a country’s military for a period of mandatory service, the person conscripted loses control over what happens to his or her body while in the military. If ordered into battle, the conscript is obliged to engage in the battle. Choice is not an option.
Abortion places the right to life of the unborn child in competition with the right to exercise control over one’s body on the part of the mother. Where then is the common good? The Church would assert that the right to life should be protected by society and thus the common good is with the right to life taking precedence. The US Supreme Court decided in Row v. Wade (1973) that the common good was with the mother and her right to control her own body in this situation.
Pro-choice groups will argue that by attempting to restrict legal access to abortion the Church is infringing on the liberty of others by imposing its teachings on all Americans, whether they agree with the Church’s position or abortion or not. It is argued that part of religious liberty, in the American tradition, includes freedom from religion. The imposition of a teaching of the Church on all of society is a violation of the religious liberty of non-Catholics, especially those secular citizens who do not affiliate with any religious tradition. On the other hand, the Church argues that part of the State’s responsibility to seek the common good is a duty to protect the innocent from injustice and the denial of their basic rights. Abortion is the denial of the right to life, which is about as basic as you can get when it comes to a State’s responsibility to protect the common good.
The other “hot button” issue is LGBTQ rights and same sex marriage. Traditionally, the Catholic Church has placed same-sex sexual activity in the same category as other moral failings related to sex; such as fornication, adultery and similar sexual behavior outside of the context of marriage. These moral behaviors and the extent to which their prohibition was enforced tended to reflect the cultural attitudes and practices of the communities towards same-sex relationships at a particular point in time. Some communities acknowledged such behavior as outside of the norm and unacceptable with informal social sanctions like social pressure against such behavior. Other communities took a more active stance against such behavior and imposed strict sanctions against such behavior.
The key element in the current controversy is the quest by some persons for recognition of same-sex relationships as a legitimate form of marriage. This transforms same-sex relationships from being seen by society as deviant and unacceptable and views them as one legitimate marriage option among others. This conflicts with the Church’s understanding of marriage which views it as a covenant between and man and a woman for the good of the spouses, as well as the propagation and rearing of children. When marriage is between two baptized people it is raised to the status of a sacrament. Same-sex relationships inherently preclude the propagation of children, as the relationship is not between a man and woman. On the other hand, from the government perspective, several Supreme Court decisions have accepted same-sex relationships as legitimate forms of marriage in the United States.
The religious liberty issues come into play when churches are expected to act as agents of the State by performing marriage ceremonies, which is a common practice. Will ministers and priests get into trouble with the law if they refuse to perform a same-sex wedding because it is in violation of their religious beliefs? Is the State violating the religious liberty of Christian Churches by expecting them to perform wedding ceremonies contrary to their understanding of marriage?
On the other hand, are Churches violating the rights of same-sex couples by excluding them from church based wedding ceremonies when the legal system of a nation identifies them as having the legal right to enter marriage with one another? Again, we are faced with the question of where does the “common good” lie?
The Church is faced with the additional challenge of separating the sin from the sinner. It cannot simply condemn the LGBTQ community or person, even if it rejects the related behavior. It has a pastoral, spiritual and moral responsibility to everyone, including the LGBTQ community.
The point I am trying to make is that religious liberty is a very important issue today and has been important in the life of the Church almost from the beginning. It is also a very complex issue where both the Church and the State are called to walk a narrow tightrope that carefully respects the separation of Church and State, as well as the rights and responsibilities of each.