The “Citizens United” of Religious Liberty

by A.F. Alexander

Citizens United made history. Fifty years ago nobody would have conceived that a business entity equaled personhood. That a legal and tax status, such as incorporation of a business, ensured it the same inalienable rights that our Declaration of Independence declares, and our Constitution protects. Ever since the Supreme Court upheld Citizens United, average Americans have disliked it and began efforts to counter it, including talk of a Constitutional Amendment that would effectively block the high court’s ruling.

     Perhaps that is such old news that nobody blinks when a similarly epic twisting of priorities, the elevating of employer/corporate rights superior to individual religious liberty, made headlines. First the Catholic Church (in May there were 40+ Catholic agencies) and businesses such as Hobby Lobby were asserting their “rights,” as collective or corporate entities, to determine personal health coverage they would allow. This is the equivalent of Citizens United, relegating individual religious conscience and rights as inferior to an organized body’s, or business entity’s. It is not as if this is happening in back rooms with stealthy moves. Rather, it is splashed in news, radio, print, and even Facebook.

This issue has continued to create headlines, most recently because Wheaton College joined with Catholic University in a lawsuit to fight providing standard, common birth control coverage. Initially, the Catholic Church’s protests inspired more widespread sweeping denial of health coverage beyond just birth control as witnessed in the Blunt Amendment. This amendment declared that making any business cover any kind of health coverage that a business entity had a conscientious objection to was a violation of…that company’s rights. Fortunately, it did not pass the Senate. Recently, Tyndale Publishing House picked up that particular banner and now protests covering “abortion pills” as a for-profit corporation, unlike the handfuls of 501c3 non-profits that began the uproar.

August 1, 2012, the Christian Post published poll results that claims fifty-six percent of Catholics who specifically heard of the controversy sided with the Bishops claim of a violation to the church’s religious liberty. The Christian Post didn’t break the poll respondents by male/female categories.

When birth control insurance coverage first became a national controversy, I spoke to several of my Catholic lady friends and acquaintances. I was surprised at the number of professional, independent, and intelligent women who never thought about their personal religious freedom and rights in the matter. Rather, they deferred to the Church’s rights, without a thought to the limiting of their freedom of religious expression and choice – even if they personally took birth control. But one of my friends was so disturbed by this mandate over women, and other pulpit politics from her life-long family denomination, that she considered facing family outrage to leave the Catholic church. Initially, she turned to her parish priest and implored him for a reason to stay, an explanation that might soothe her feelings of betrayal. Rather, she received steadfast dogma and not one ounce of understanding. My friend went through a crisis of faith due to this. She broke completely with the Catholic Church and joined a less political protestant church.

     I then turned to Catholic women’s groups for statements. The National Council of Catholic Women in the U.S. did not reply to my inquiry. The Association of Catholic Women in the United Kingdom did answer my email. It was a standard statement deferring to the Church’s rights and the perceived assault on religious liberty – without a hint of individual rights in general nor women’s religious rights in particular. “…despite employers’ conscientious objections to such treatments on religious grounds, appears to us to be a direct contravention of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion. Freedom of religion is simply incompatible with any restriction on the citizen’s right to live and conduct his affairs in accordance with the teachings of his religion.” This clearly equates an employer’s conscience (a business entity) as being a person’s religious liberty.

The first sentence gives First Amendment coverage to employer’s and the second sentence talks of a citizen’s right to conduct his (or her) right to live and conduct affairs, not as they personally believe – but as their church instructs. There is no recognition that the very concept of religious liberty has been redefined to elevate corporate identity as a person claiming first amendment coverage. Nor is there recognition that they have replaced a citizen’s right to live as they personally believe, in place of following their church – or employer’s beliefs. Let us remember, many people who are employed by the Catholic church are not necessarily Catholic themselves, especially in this economy when a job is a valuable commodity. But as an employer, they can enforce a corporate belief structure on all their employees rather than leave the option to individual beliefs. Those are two very different concepts. Personal religious liberty is discarded in favor of a corporate church’s dictates on congregant’s lives. This results in the individual’s right to choose based on his/her own convictions stomped into the dust in favor of an employer’s conscience – with none of the furor that Citizen’s United continually experiences.

This further institutionalizes business entities as a person. We are witnessing a massive shifting away from religious liberty – from the person and squarely with a church or business entity, and yet nobody seems to recognize it as such. Why don’t more people see the birth-control-insurance-coverage outrage for what it is, corporate rights trumping individual liberty?

A.F. Alexander is the author of “Religious Right: The Greatest Threat to Democracy.” She holds a BSBA degree, as well as a Bachelor of Arts in Sacred Theology. She has worked in “Fortune 500” companies or the defense industry her entire adult life. She is a native of Colorado and has been politically engaged since elementary school. She also witnessed the move of Focus on the Family into her hometown and the dramatic impact it had on the city.

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