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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Allies under assault

Religion | Catholics and evangelicals coalesce against rising threats to religious liberty from all levels of government

Issue: "2012 Cities Issue," March 10, 2012

WASHINGTON and NEW YORK-The last couple months, says Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren, have been a "perfect storm" for the erosion of religious liberty. He cites New York City's ban on churches meeting in public schools (which tossed two Saddleback-planted churches out of their places of worship), the court decision overturning Proposition 8, and the Obama administration's mandate that employer-provided insurance pay for employees' contraceptives, which affects Saddleback-affiliated organizations because they self-insure.

"We're at a flash point right now that's different than ever before in terms of the eroding of religious freedom," Warren said. "Christians ought to be alarmed." Though Warren doesn't oppose contraceptives, he said, "I stand in 100 percent solidarity with the Catholic Church on this issue."

Catholics and evangelicals have found themselves fighting side by side in these battles, especially in the battle over the contraceptive mandate. Religious leaders see in these controversies an opportunity to change the perception of religious freedom as a private or individual right and to show that the full scope of the church's work reaches beyond a worship service. The federal contraceptive mandate, part of the new healthcare law's requirement that insurance must cover preventive services (including drugs that cause abortions) with no co-pay, carves out a religious exemption-but only for churches. Other religious organizations and other employers with religious concerns have no conscience protections. (The administration has promised an "accommodation" to make insurers the ones who pay for contraceptives for employees at religious organizations, but many religious leaders have dismissed that proposal as mere wordplay.)

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One alliance between evangelical and Catholic leaders that has now become a united front on religious freedom issues began in the Metropolitan Club in New York in 2008. The three founders of the alliance-Prison Fellowship's Chuck Colson, Princeton University's Robert George, and Beeson Divinity School's Timothy George (no relation to Robert)-met at the club to discuss what would become the Manhattan Declaration, a document released in 2009 on life, marriage, and religious liberty that over a half million people have now signed.

The preamble of the Declaration states that "freedom of religion and the rights of conscience are gravely jeopardized by those who would use the instruments of coercion to compel persons of faith to compromise their deepest convictions." Robert George, recalling the 2008 conversation at the club, said Colson foresaw a "huge assault" on religious freedom: "He felt Protestants and Catholics needed to join together with our Eastern Orthodox brothers ... and pledge ourselves to stand for religious freedom. ... And to pledge not to compromise our principles, under any circumstances."

Today, the framers of the Manhattan Declaration are seeing their predictions of conscience coercion fulfilled, but Robert George said religious leaders have also fulfilled their commitment to stand together. Instead of the contraceptive issue fading after President Obama announced his accommodation to the mandate on Feb. 10, the issue has continued to simmer and boil.

Evangelicals and Catholics are pledging to end insurance coverage in some cases and face huge federal penalties rather than violate their consciences by paying for contraceptives and abortifacients. Presidents from Protestant and Catholic colleges testified together against the mandate before a congressional committee. Robert George and hundreds of other prominent academics and religious leaders signed a statement calling the administration's accommodation "unacceptable."

Three more religious schools have filed lawsuits against the administration over the mandate-Geneva College, Ave Maria University, and Louisiana College-in addition to those suits Belmont Abbey College and Colorado Christian University have already filed. And Congress is working on legislation, the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, that would broadly expand the religious exemption from the contraceptive mandate. Meanwhile, Catholics are protesting the Department of Health and Human Services' decision to end contracts with the church's anti-trafficking arm, considered one of the best anti-trafficking networks available, because it didn't offer abortion referrals. And evangelicals are on the front lines of a fight in New York City to give churches the same access to public-school facilities as every other organization after the city kicked most churches out of school facilities recently.

There are victories: In January, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) fended off an effort from the Obama administration to restrict protections for religious groups in their hiring decisions. The church won a unanimous decision at the Supreme Court in Hosanna Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, considered one of the biggest religious freedom rulings in decades. "The administration does not contemplate how broad religious rights are," Matthew Harrison, the president of the LCMS, told me. Harrison also testified to Congress against the contraceptive mandate, saying though the LCMS church itself is exempt, "We are deeply concerned that our consciences may be soon martyred by a single stroke of the keyboard."

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