With the exception of Catholics and others in the religious community that closely follow such issues, few people took note of the Obama administration's rhetorical shift from "freedom of religion" to "freedom of worship" in 2010. This seemingly innocuous modification carried with it significant implications, however, as Ashley Samelson of the Becket Fund explained in an article for First Things:
"Any person of faith knows that religious exercise is about a lot more than freedom of worship. It's about the right to dress according to one's religious dictates, to preach openly, to evangelize, to engage in the public square. Everyone knows that religious Jews keep kosher, religious Quakers don't go to war, and religious Muslim women wear headscarves-yet 'freedom of worship' would protect none of these acts of faith."
Ms. Samelson might have included "freedom of conscience" in her litany of the liberties protected by the free exercise clause has she known that the President would soon be launching an unprecedented attack on the constitutional rights of private religious organizations in the name of "health care rights." Why? Because this is exactly what the President's new birth control mandate signifies.
The strong reaction to this policy is understandable. What is happening here is more than mere politics as usual, it represents a fundamental attack on liberty in which the United States government is using its coercive power in an illegal manner to impose a controversial ideology on its citizens. To require private religious employers to provide birth control and other abortifacient drugs to their employees is to compel them to defy their consciences as informed by their faith and the Word of God. Indeed, there are some who believe that President Obama's true motive has less to do with birth control and more to do with government control, sending the message that it is not God but the State that is the final authority on questions of personal conscience and morality.
The Church should not be surprised by this, for this kind of secular v. divine power struggle has been going on since ancient times. As Michael Stokes Paulsen recounts in his article "Obama's Contraception Cramdown: The Pork Precedent," Jewish leaders were subjected to severe penalties for refusing to render to Caesar things that rightly belonged to God:
"In the second century B.C., the foreign tyrant Antiochus IV Epiphanes decreed that all Jews should be forced to violate their religious consciences by publicly eating pork and food sacrificed to idols. 'If any were not willing to eat defiling food, they were to be broken on the wheel and killed' (4 Maccabees 5:3). It was a command of gratuitous forced submission as a sign of Antiochus’s supreme authority to compel obedience by a subject people."
Of course, no one expects President Obama to employ the specter of torture as a means of ensuring compliance with his new policy. We live in a civilized age after all, and who needs torture when you have a vast federal bureaucratic apparatus at your disposal? Who needs over threats of execution when you have the support of an increasingly secular culture for whom the selfish pursuit of pleasure is the only civil liberty that counts? While resistance may seem futile, orthodox Christians and others of faith who are morally opposed to contraception and abortion are duty-bound to resist this flagrant violation of First Amendment liberty.
Catholics are right not to transgress conscience on this issue, and Protestants should stand in solidarity with them even if they don't affirm the same position when it comes to birth control. Given recent cultural, social, and political attitudes towards faith in America – Christianity in particular – one has to wonder, what's next? Who's next? This policy is extremely serious, reflecting government's willingness to promote social engineering at the expense of religious conscience, and President Obama's 11th hour "accommodation" is a dishonest ruse that does nothing more than provide a thin veil of plausible deniability for those that might lack the courage of their convictions.
Harvard pedigree notwithstanding, it appears that the current occupant of the Oval Office could benefit from a remedial course in basic constitutional law. Then again, something tells me this policy has little to do with a misinterpretation of the law and everything to do with advancing a left wing ideology that is increasingly hostile to religion.