Religious Freedom and the Forces of Tolerance

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I have long thought it axiomatic that in our contemporary society the most smugly intolerant individuals tend to be on the political left.  Ross Douthat has apparently noticed that also, and in his most recent column lays out what that means for religious freedom:

To the extent that the H.H.S. mandate, the Cologne ruling and the Chick-fil-A controversy reflect a common logic rather than a shared confusion, then, it’s a logic that regards Western monotheism’s ideas about human sexuality — all that chastity, monogamy, male-female business — as similarly incompatible with basic modern freedoms.       

Like a belief that the gods want human sacrifice, these ideas are permissible if held in private. But they cannot be exercised in ways that might deny, say, employer-provided sterilizations to people who really don’t want kids. Nor can they be exercised to deny one’s offspring the kind of sexual gratification that anti-circumcision advocates claim the procedure makes impossible. They certainly cannot be exercised in ways that might make anyone uncomfortable with his or her own sexual choices or identity.       

It may seem strange that anyone could look around the pornography-saturated, fertility-challenged, family-breakdown-plagued West and see a society menaced by a repressive puritanism. But it’s clear that this perspective is widely and sincerely held.       

It would be refreshing, though, if it were expressed honestly, without the “of course we respect religious freedom” facade.       

If you want to fine Catholic hospitals for following Catholic teaching, or prevent Jewish parents from circumcising their sons, or ban Chick-fil-A in Boston, then don’t tell religious people that you respect our freedoms. Say what you really think: that the exercise of our religion threatens all that’s good and decent, and that you’re going to use the levers of power to bend us to your will.       

There, didn’t that feel better? Now we can get on with the fight.

Go here to read the rest.  As usual, many of Douthat’s commenters, outraged that the holy writ of the New York Times is polluted with a point of view inimical to that of the one truth faith of contemporary secular liberalism, angrily, and unintentionally hilariously, help prove Douthat’s point.  However, I was surprised to see more support for Douthat’s argument among his commenters than I anticipated.  A random sample:



This article is mixing up too many issues. There is so much local complexity in each of these situations that your attempt to concoct one over-arching thesis is unsuccessful.
In the case of Chik-fil-A (unlike the circumcision example), nobody has actually banned or barred anything. The statements we have seen so far are nothing more than political grandstanding by showboating politicians eager to score points. Rahm Emanuel may tweet about it as much as he wants, but he alone does not have the power to prevent a business from opening. And, he knows that.
He does, however, have the bully pulpit to inveigh against the business, which is fair play. In a free society, if Chik-fil-A has the right to express opposition to marriage equality, then I also have the right to denounce his business and encourage people not to spend money there. Free speech works both ways.
It is also worth noting that those who are trying to prevent Chik-fil-A from opening stores are doing so on the grounds of zoning issues (such as traffic at the proposed location, noise levels, etc), not on the grounds of the company’s position on marriage equality.
Could they be using zoning as a cover for penalizing the company? Perhaps. But, the very fact that they are using this tactic shows that they know they can’t penalize the company for its views. That alone disproves Ross’s argument that people don’t understand what “free exercise” of religion means. On the contrary, they understand it all too well.



I’d be more inclined to respect the views of people who think that the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment is violated by a law requiring them to offer insurance covering contraceptives if they also thought that laws prohibiting abortions or stem cell research violated the “establishment” clause.   Some religions impose hard and fast rules against certain conduct, while others demand that their adherents apply their conscience on a case-by-case.  Just because my religion does not flatly prohibit my daughters from having or performing an abortion, prohibit me from using birth control, ban suicide or euthanasia, or prohibit stem cell research or human cloning, this does not mean that our decisions on any of these matters are not based on our religious views and values. 
The contraceptive insurance flap suggests that some religious folks are exquisitely sensitive to laws that intrude on what their religion tells them they should not do.  But many of these same folks have no qualms whatsoever about imposing their religious dictates on those of us who have different religious values. 



It is really not that complicated.  We are free to follow our religious beliefs (or lack thereof) but we are not free to impose them on other people.  That would infringe on their freedom.  Consequently, it is not acceptable to deny medical treatments to people who work for you just because you do not “believe” in them.  One of my former employees suffered from depression.  Would it be okay for me to deny her access to anti-depressants because I have decided that depression is a moral failing rather than a medical condition?  Of course not.


You seemed to have missed the point entirely.  The constitution’s protection to allow the expression of one’s religion includes organizing in ways other than building or acquiring a house of worship. 
Educational and medical institutions that are organized expressly because of a religious community’s desire to honor their religious beliefs to help others should not be damned because their religion requires certain behaviors to be upheld while other behaviors are denied.  Forcing these institutions to break their religious creeds seems to me to be a violation of the First Amendment.  Especially when there are so many other choices for



Your freedom stops where other people’s rights begin.


You argue against banning circumcision but would support banning forced marriage as most people would. To resolve the question where do we draw the line we have to fall back on reasoning based science, logic, rationale thinking, etc. shared by the majority.  We can longer fall back on religiuos beliefs. Someone’s reliogion is so often someone else’s chains and shackles. Religion at the end will have to the back seat when it interferes with sociiety at large


Regarding that fast food chicken joint, we don’t need those mayors help… they are screwing up the value of their brand all by themselves. There are plenty of places to eat without giving money to bigots.
But the Catholic Church operates all those institutions with government money. The insurance belongs to the employees, not to them. The Bishops are bullies – and are screwing up the value of their brand, too.


I don’t think the real issue has been addressed in your column, Mr. Douthat.  The president of Chick-Fil-A is not only opposed to same sex marriage, but the company donates generously to organizations that lobby members of congress to pass legislation denying people their rights.  In my opinion, some of these organizations border on hate groups. If boycotting Mr. Cathy’s fried chicken takes even one dollar away from these narrow minded groups it is well worth the effort.


The free exercise of religion must take a back seat when it comes to public accommodations, like restaurants, hotels, buses. Chik-fil-A’s president made it pretty clear that he disapproves of gay people for Biblical reasons. Folks like him used to say the same thing about black people and inter-racial marriage. His company afterwards tried to patch it up by saying their restaurants don’t discriminate. Who knows whether they do or not? The chill is already there. Had he issued a similar put-down of Blacks or Jews, the national conversation would be quite different than the one we’re having now.



It’s interesting indeed that the Bill of Rights’ writers used specifically the words “free exercise”, especially when there was not the degree of religious diversity and pluralism then as we have now, when such wording is even more needed. Thank you for highlighting that constitutional wording, I hadn’t noticed it before and it brings alot of clarity to legal discussions. This is a great column.



You imply that those who disagree with you are dishonest, yet you yourself use twisted logic to get to the conclusion you want to reach.  First, stop assuming that everyone is lined up on one side or the other of these issues.  Circumcision has legitimate health benefits, which alone is reason enough to find the judge’s decision alarming.  One can disagree with his decision while still agreeing that hospitals run by religious organizations have no right to impose their personal norms on their non-religious employees. When those hospitals stop taking a penny in public funding, then let’s talk.
As for the implication that “repressive puritanism” and “family breakdown” are the only two choices, please, give us a break.  Where is family breakdown most rampant in the US?  Yes, you got it:  the 22 most religiously conservative states.  Same for teen pregnancy, welfare use, illiteracy, and drug abuse.   Maybe, as a believer, you need to look after your own house before coming after the rest of us.
The exercise of religion need not threaten all that is good and decent.  But it has historically and unremittingly been a pretext for suppressing alternative views and even rationality itself, not the other way around.  From Socrates to Galileo to Darwin (himself a believer), the rational have been persecuted for using their brains, but they have slowly managed to open our minds.  Please don’t try to drag us back, and please do take your own advice and try some intellectual honesty.




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  1. I am surprised that the NY Times moderated allow people supporting Mr. Douthat to voice their opinions. But of the comment reproductions provided above, I did not see a clear cut example of that. Ido agree with one commenter above who maintained that the liberal left does understand religious freedom and all too well, for which reason they seek to marginalize or eliminated it.

  2. Quote one of those responders: “Your freedom stops where other people’s rights begin.”

    I was taught that in high school “Social Problems” class. And I believed it. Unfortunately the question is now begged- “What are we defining now as people’s rights?”

  3. Some people define a fake wife and a phoney husband as husband and wife. What could be wrong with that? Some people define tax money as “government money”. Government in and of itself cannot own anything. All belongs to the people in trust for all generations, our constitutional posterity. For the HHS mandate to respect all citizens, it must provide Catholic patients with Catholic hospitals with Catholic doctors, a chapel, a chaplain and freedom to come and go unmolested. Imposing confiscatory fines is molestation of a finacial nature intended to suppress and destroy a belief in the persons’ soul, establishment of Satanism, the belief that the person has no soul, a lie.

  4. “From Socrates to Galileo to Darwin (himself a believer), the rational have been persecuted for using their brains, but they have slowly managed to open our minds. Please don’t try to drag us back, and please do take your own advice and try some intellectual honesty.” Poor Socrates was an accomplice to his own murder by imbibing the hemlock, because he said he would. Illegal crimes cannot be legalized by fiat, or by saying its legal, when it is not legal. Poor Galileo tried to preach science as religion. Science is science and religion is man’s response to the gift of Faith from God. To deny God and the gift of Faith from God is intellectually dishonest and totalitarian, because it is a lie. Ahah, Darwin refused to believe in the human being as composed of body and human soul, endowed with unalienble rights to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Even if these founding principles were wrong, these are still our founding principles. Accept them or go find another country to your liking. BTW Russia refused entrance to Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the American atheist. A land of sovereign persons is infinitely desirable to a land of an abominable lie.

  5. “As for the implication that “repressive puritanism” and “family breakdown” are the only two choices, please, give us a break. Where is family breakdown most rampant in the US? Yes, you got it: the 22 most religiously conservative states. Same for teen pregnancy, welfare use, illiteracy, and drug abuse. Maybe, as a believer, you need to look after your own house before coming after the rest of us.”
    Our house is in disarray because our government has redefined virginty as non-existent, innocence as non-existent and the human being, composed of human body and rational, immortal soul (you know, the rational soul with which a human being reasons) as non-existent. Our government has redefined pornography, a lie about human sexuality as free speech, the age of informed sexual consent at twelve years of age, without so much as putting the issue on the ballot for the voice of the people to be heard and the will of the people to be respected. But the government wants us to pay for all this with our taxes. Taxation without representation. Put it on the ballot for heaven’s sake. It is called FREEDOM.

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