I am not a person of religion. But I am a believer. I believe that tomorrow at about 6:15 AM the Sun will rise in the East. I believe that people can be good, and I believe in freedom. I believe that those Eighteenth Century, wig-wearing, slave-owning, White guys knew more than just Roman numerals when they composed the documents shaping our country’s governance.
The “Founding Fathers” fretted about the balance of power and the protection of citizens’ rights. Without the benefit of Microsoft Word, they wrote our constitution, and James Madison, sans Excel, was able to sort and prioritize those rights most in need of protection. Madison brilliantly composed the Bill of Rights, this seminal document consisting of ten amendments delineates those cherished rights. Surely, he must have asked himself, “Where do I start? Which right is paramount? Which right deserves to be numero uno?. ”
He somehow reached a decision, and next to Roman numeral one; he wrote,
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The first protected right chosen by Madison was the right to practice one’s religion, and prohibiting our government from foisting a specific religion on its people.
Why did Madison choose religious freedom as number I? Was it a divinely inspired decision? Was he fearful of a state sponsored religion? Was religion just so illogical that it needed protection from rational thought? I don’t have an answer. Perhaps, I could pray for one.
Religion is unique, because it often relies on an ephemeral, unknowable higher authority, an unchallengeable authority, an authority that can and has been used to abridge human rights.
On March 1, 2012 forty-eight U.S. Senators cast votes in favor of the Blunt Amendment. The amendment was cleverly attached to a popular transportation bill. Note; only via senatorial logic could a bill funding roads and bridges for Peterbilts be merged with a bill protecting the church Peter built. The amendment which blessedly failed (48-51), was an attempt to permit employers to avoid providing any federally mandated healthcare coverage that an employer deemed in conflict with his or her moral beliefs. Specifically, it was designed to allow bosses to opt out of providing contraceptive coverage to employees. More importantly, this legislation was probably designed to garner Right Wing Conservative Christian votes by claiming Obama’s government was anti-religion.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the Senate floor before the vote. “If the government is allowed to tell people to buy health care, it won’t stop there. I wonder what’s next. This isn’t about one particular religion — it’s about the right of any American to live out their faith without the government picking and choosing which doctrines they’re allowed to follow.”
No Mitch, it’s about employers having the right to determine the fate of their employees based on the doctrine or specific faith they professe to follow. It’s about permitting one to impose his or her beliefs on the rights of their employees by limiting their life choices.
Mitch, wouldn’t it be more equitable and fair to add “PROVIDED those actions do not impinge on the life and liberty of others?” The supporters of this bill in truth were not concerned with freedom of religion, they were concerned with women having the freedom to use contraception.
This bill failed, and perhaps this will go away. However, if our Senate shifts to the right, and we get a Santorum-like President, the idea that powerful people might use a religious or moral belief as a justification for bypassing laws protecting the average citizen could be possible, and should be terrifying.
I ask the reader to ponder the following:
Should a boss be able to:
- require women to wear burkas
require that girls be circumcised
- avoid controlling pollution because God will take care of things
- refuse to provide health insurance covering blood transfusions or stem cell transplants
- demand people tithe to a specific Church
- insist that employees say a prayer before starting the workday
- demand that children attend a school that teaches creationism
- require men to wear hats
- forbid employees to have lovers of the same sex
- only hire those believing in a specific God
- fire people for taking the Lord’s name in vain (whatever the hell that means) after working hours
- forbid people to drive on Saturday or Sunday
- forbid people from voting for legislators in favor of legalizing marijuana
- forbid people from attending pro-choice rallies
- demand that all little boys be circumcised
- refuse to sell to customers of certain religions
- refuse to purchase from suppliers of different faith
Should people in power be able to treat their employees these ways?
Today, many of the above demands can be legally instituted by religious institutions. Some can be done by businesses. Few can be done by publicly funded institutions. On March 1, 2012, we were just two votes from changing that.
Matt Cole March 6, 2012
Matt Cole is a dad, grandpa, former construction executive and middle school science teacher. As an active member of the Chicago Ethical Humanist Society, he cares about people.