Tolerance Requires Religious Liberty

This week, the Supreme Court announced that it would take up the case of Little Sisters of the Poor v. Burwell. The Little Sisters are a group of Catholics nuns who live under vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Their entire lives are dedicated to serving Christ, Who said that “as often as you did it to the least of My people, you did it to Me.” (Matthew 25)

The sisters easily could have lived comfortably in our modern American society. They could have undertaken successful careers; they could have started families, but instead, they willingly chose to deny themselves to serve the poor, the elderly, and the sick.

All of us, from every creed and background, ought to commend this work. Any healthy society encourages good deeds such as these.

But, rather than rewarding or even simply tolerating their voluntary acts of service, the federal government has given these nuns a choice: give up your beliefs or give up your ministry.

The Obama Administration — not Congress — has ordered the sisters to pay for contraceptives, an act that they find unthinkable. Unless the sisters pay for all 19 contraceptive drugs or devices on the market, then they will have to pay the government exorbitant fines that would quickly bankrupt them. Either they violate their beliefs (the same beliefs that motivate them to serve others), or they become unable to act on their beliefs. It is an unconscionable catch-22.

Last summer, the Supreme Court ruled in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that closely-held companies — companies like Conestoga Wood that are family-owned or owned by just a few individuals — could not be forced to pay for all 19 forms of contraception.

But the Court was careful to keep the ruling narrow, and so it did not affect non-profits like the Little Sisters of the Poor. Non-profits especially have a claim to religious liberty because so many of them exist solely because of beliefs. Make the Salvation Army give up its beliefs and you make it give up everything. Make Lutheran Services stop being Lutheran and you take away their reason for existing. Make Mennonite Charities stop being Mennonite and you might as well put them out of business.

The Administration is so eager to force people to pay for other people’s contraceptives that even the so-called “accommodation” they provide to conscientious objectors is subject to litigation. These companies don’t directly pay, but instead have to direct their insurance company to pay.

As Chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, I have the opportunity to meet with leaders from around the world, and with people persecuted by their governments. I am continually shocked by the outrages committed by the powerful all over the world — whether in Egypt, India, Myanmar, or North Korea. I am shocked at the intolerance and disrespect of others behind governments that force viewpoints on minority groups.

We as Americans, and especially as Pennsylvanians, are not like that. We are a big, diverse nation, representing people of more creeds than any other country on the planet. We are a tolerant people, and we deserve a tolerant government.

Religious liberty is fundamentally about tolerance. It is about how we live together as a society. Any majority that feels the need to force its beliefs on an innocent minority does not have the confidence of faith.

Religious liberty is a universal human right, but it especially foundational to the American idea: without it, we fundamentally change the relationship of the government and the people. In a constitutional Republic like ours, the People sit in judgment of the government. It’s a government by the People and for the People.

But without religious liberty, then the government sits in judgment of the People. The government decides what it will allow the People to do, rather than the People deciding what they will allow the government to do. The government decides whose beliefs are acceptable, and punishes those who are different.

The federal government shouldn’t be deciding which groups of believers get to own businesses, or which religions get to have charitable organizations. But that’s effectively what this outrageous federal regulation does.

The Supreme Court ought to completely strike down this regulation as unconstitutional, and uphold the inalienable human right of every person to exercise their faith — not just to believe, not just to worship. It is the tolerant thing to do.