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.)
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."
The mandate as it stands doesn't encompass the extent of religious life, leaders say. "These so-called accommodations were made without reference to the real world that the church operates in," said Bishop William Lori, the U.S. Catholic Church's point man on religious freedom. Insurers must provide contraceptives for free, a problem for groups that self-insure, for example. GuideStone Financial Resources is one of those self-funded, faith-based insurance programs, which serves the Southern Baptist Convention. While the churches are completely exempt from the mandate, the convention's affiliate organizations are subject to the mandate, and GuideStone said the mandate "threatens the very coverage of those dedicated persons who serve our churches and affiliated organizations." The White House has said that self-insured groups will not have to pay for contraceptives for their employees, but the administration hasn't laid out a policy for how that will work.
Major Christian healthcare sharing ministries have also found themselves caught between regulations and the "real world": Clients of Samaritan Ministries International, for one, are exempt from the individual mandate (and thus the contraceptive mandate) because the healthcare law carved out a special exemption for healthcare sharing ministries. But the group itself is subject to the employer mandate because it has more than 50 employees and doesn't meet the criteria for a church. So while its clients are exempt, the ministry's employees are not. James Lansberry, the group's vice president and the head of the Alliance of Health Care Sharing Ministries, said the group has submitted a request for regulatory clarification on the matter but plans to pay the federal penalties for not providing insurance to employees if they are required to provide contraceptive coverage.
In these battles religious leaders see a deeper issue that goes beyond the politics of 2012. "The big narrative is the privatization of religion," Lori said. The fact that the administration only applied a religious exemption to churches "exemplifies that privatization of religion," he said. "Religion pertains to the whole of life," Robert George added. "It's a common misunderstanding ... that you can divide your life into religious segments or secular segments. ... When government officials ... don't understand that, they can threaten religious freedom."
Saddleback's Warren agrees: "Most people don't really get what the issue is here," he said, regarding the mandate. "It's the government saying, 'You have to violate your own conscience.' More than that, it's defining what is and isn't the church." He said the government is telling the church, "'You can have your conviction if you're doing evangelism,'" but not for education or healthcare. "That's a dangerous, dangerous thing that I will fight."
At the local level, New York City churches are being pushed out of the public square. The city has banned more than 60 churches from meeting inside public schools where other organizations have access, and now dozens of churches across the city have nowhere to hold services.
On Feb. 17, federal Judge Loretta Preska issued a temporary restraining order that was intended to allow churches 10 more days to meet inside public schools. But the next day, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals tempered the order to apply only to The Bronx Household of Faith, the church that has been at the center of the legal fight. Efforts to overturn the ban legislatively continue. The next step is for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to introduce Bill A8800 to the Assembly floor for a vote. "This is really a no-brainer," said councilman Fernando Cabrera in a statement. "[H]ouses of worship benefit communities, bring revenue to the city, and deserve equal access to rent these empty spaces in public school buildings during non-school hours. We will continue the fight."
Those opposed to churches meeting in public schools claim that such arrangements violate the Constitution and confuse local youth into thinking that the state endorses the religious views expressed during a religious service. But Alliance Defense Fund Senior Counsel Jordan Lorence, who has worked on New York-based equal access cases for almost 20 years, says the conflict stems from an unconstitutional view of the separation of church and state. "The Supreme Court has rejected this view," Lorence said. "Accommodating private speech doesn't violate the establishment clause. ... New York City is the last holdout for an extreme view of the separation clause ... that says religion is something that needs to be contained and driven" from the public square.