An un-American assault on religious liberty

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Hushed crowds move slowly through the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. The line of waiting visitors outside remains hundreds deep for hours.

Inside and out, the security is more obvious and comprehensive than any I've ever seen -- testament to the powerful history enshrined here and to the ever-looming prejudice that would destroy.

At the end of the tour, an interactive and very provocative multimedia exhibit awaits. It seeks visitors' opinions on current conflicts of conscience from around the world.

After each scenario is presented, viewers indicate how they would resolve it by pressing green or red buttons on their armrests. The results flash on the screen, along with tallies of all votes cast to date.

What is striking is that in almost every conflict, museum visitors are pretty evenly divided. The only lopsided vote (77 to 33 percent) is in favor of banning all neo-Nazi garb in one of the former Soviet satellite countries.

But erasing Holocaust deniers' videos from YouTube? 50-50. Removing crucifixes from Italy's public schools? 40-60. Allowing Dutch magistrates who are devout Christians to defer gay marriages to their secular colleagues? 49-51.

With our minds newly sensitive to the horrors arising in societies that allow and even institutionalize bias against minorities, we nonetheless struggle to balance competing claims to truth and liberty.

And back home in America it's no different -- although I would have expected greater clarity of thought in the country where the separation of church and state was first, and is still most widely, practiced.

But this new millennium has delivered us to a strange new world. Suddenly our governments -- at every level -- are expanding into territory that requires them, apparently, to choose between competing claims to the public good.

Right there, the need to choose should be a very loud warning signal to the governing and the governed that perhaps the government is treading someplace it never should have gone. Though lately we haven't seen any government retreat from an opportunity to bully, perhaps the U.S. District court will surprise -- and reassure -- us.

Catholic institutions in Pittsburgh and Erie are seeking an injunction that would exempt them from the Affordable Care Act's mandate to provide -- via their insurance administrators -- the contraceptives that they find morally objectionable.

In court last week, Bishop David Zubik called the contraception mandate a "slippery slope" that would erode our constitutional right to the free exercise of religion. I agree with his argument, even though I don't agree with his theology or interpretation of science.

But it doesn't matter whether my theology aligns with Bishop Zubik's. It matters only that I -- and everyone else -- recognize that all citizens of any religious persuasion have the right to decide this matter for themselves.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania is siding with the Obama administration. Legal director Vic Walczak asserts that by declining to cover contraceptives, Catholic authorities are "trying to control the non-work lives of their employees."

The ACLU's argument is illogical. Consider: If the Catholics prevail and do not have to subsidize other people's contraceptives, those people are still free to obtain them for themselves -- as their consciences allow. If the government prevails, the Catholics are forced to betray their consciences.

Not only is this a slam-dunk logically, but historically, Catholic and evangelical institutions (like Geneva College) never even should have been forced to seek "exemptions."

When Thomas Jefferson cited "the wall of separation" in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, he was responding to their complaint that they were second-class citizens in a state (Connecticut) where Congregationalists were the established church.

The Baptists protested: "[W]hat religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights."

Certain religious rights must be "exemptions" -- namely, the right not to bear arms in defense of one's country. Exemptions for pacifists are necessary because national defense is the federal government's first duty. But deciding what every citizen's health insurance policy must cover is nowhere near an obligation of government. Exemptions on the basis of conscience should not be necessary; that they now are is a certain sign of government's grotesque over-reach.

Tyranny doesn't always end in horrific death, but why start down that slippery slope? To get the pill for free? Really?

Ruth Ann Dailey:

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