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Walk a Hutterite Mile in Their Shoes

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Have you noticed all the talk about the "inevitability" of same-sex marriage? Are you watching the second round of the "war on women" rhetoric hitting opponents of the president's stance on abortion and health care? We need to take a deep breath and consider the consequences of these radical changes to the notion of "freedom."


On a secular campus in a major city -- George Washington University in Washington, D.C. -- a Catholic priest at the campus ministry outpost has come under fire for voicing Church teaching on abortion and marriage from the pulpit and on a website, and for perhaps the greatest of sins: Counseling students against what the Church teaches to be sinful activity. The controversy isn't about homosexuality; it isn't about sex; it isn't even about Catholicism. It's about freedom. Are we free to believe, preach and openly practice certain things, which may be counter to the beliefs and practices of others?

A 500-year-old Protestant community in Montana helps bring this issue into focus, believe it or not. The Big Sky Colony of Hutterites is a self-sustaining farming collective with roots in the Protestant Reformation. Members take a vow of poverty, share communal property and support one another. The state government is insisting that workers' compensation insurance be provided to the members. This, says Luke Goodrich, their lawyer at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, is a "a direct violation of Hutterite vows to renounce private property, to receive no compensation for their work and to resolve all their disputes without asserting legal claims."

The Hutterites are not being bad citizens here, nor are they asking for special treatment. As Goodrich points out they are "gladly subject to a host of government taxes and regulations. They pay taxes on all of their agricultural produce. They follow all regulations governing their dairy, hog and grain production. They provide comprehensive, modern medical care to all of their members."


Labor interests in the state complained that the Hutterites' exemption from paying workers' compensation gives them a "competitive advantage." Montana's new law moves away from an allowance they've received for 100 years. They just want to continue with tradition.

The case is something of an educational opportunity, a reminder that the United States has long been not only an example of religious freedom as an essential element of a flourishing republic, but a haven to people fleeing mistreatment. The Hutterites have "withstood five centuries of persecution," Goodrich notes, but "laws like this one could easily end up driving them out of Montana. Nobody should have to flee the United States in order to practice their religion."

"When can the state force religious believers to violate their conscience?" is the question at the heart of the Hutterite case, Goodrich says. It's the question at the heart of other controversies too: Does the government have the right to force people with moral objections to pay for abortion, contraception and sterilization coverage? And can it change the sacred (to some) institution of marriage, transforming it into a blessing of what many religions label a sin?

When we talk about tolerance and discrimination as political strategies, we have to consider the full array of consequences. Once the law changes, it's hard to see how George Washington University would tolerate a priest who believes same-sex marriage isn't marriage at all, but a new institution we've created to fit our political mood.


As we discuss these issues and process the aftermath of whatever the Supreme Court rules regarding same-sex marriage, we ought to consider what's reasonable when it comes to government power and people with different views and expectations for life. We are stewards of a remarkable gift of religious liberty in the law and cultural tradition. Law needs to make distinctions and protect freedom. How can we do these things? How can we do these things while respecting the rights of the priest, the cardinal and the Hutterites, too?

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