Liberalism vs Religious Liberty?

The case of the Little Sisters of the Poor with respect to Obamacare is a fascinating one. Here’s a rather aggressive column by Linda Greenhouse dismissing their worries. Here’s an excellent rebuttal by Ramesh Ponnuru. His key point is about the nuns’ refusal to sign the form that triggers the ACA’s procedures for religious exemptions:

Page 2 declares that the form is the “instrument” that triggers the requirement that a third-party administrator provide contraceptive coverage. The nuns don’t want to take any action that (they believe) involves them in facilitating immoral acts, which includes causing other people to perform immoral acts. Signing the form would (in their view) do that. Note, by the way, that houses of worship, which are truly exempt from the administration’s contraceptive mandate, do not have to sign any such form to get that exemption. That fact makes a hash both of Greenhouse’s claim that the Little Sisters of the Poor are “exempt from the mandate” and her (and the administration’s) claim that certification is the only way to prevent the exemption process from sliding into “chaos.”

I confess I hadn’t seen it that way before. The mere act of delegating the authority to approve of contraceptive coverage to a third party is itself an act of complicity in something the nuns oppose for religious reasons. The current compromise – before the case reaches the Superme Court – is the following:

The Little Sisters must “inform the Secretary of Health and Human Services in writing that they are non-profit organizations that hold themselves out as religious and have religious objections to providing coverage for contraceptive services,” the court’s unsigned and apparently unanimous Jan. 24 order said. But they “need not use the form prescribed by the government and need not send copies to third-party administrators.”

If the key is signing a form that requires active complicity in a system the Little Sisters object to, and if a letter merely stating their objection to the contraceptive coverage can suffice, then this seems like more than a temporary solution. This may be splitting hairs – but allowing for religious freedom in a secular society can often come down to splitting hairs. And what concerns me is less the details of this particular case than the general liberal contempt for the genuine moral quandaries religious organizations may face. Greenhouse’s column is a prima facie case of this.

So too, I might add, is the brusque and smug liberal assumption that religious objections to marriage equality are somehow as illegitimate as defenses of slavery. Please.

There is a deep theological narrative and argument behind Christianity’s and Judaism’s and Islam’s anathematization of homosexuality that cannot be reduced to bigotry. I think it’s mistaken, but I sure don’t think it’s mere prejudice. In the Catholic tradition, Humanae Vitae – with which I strongly disagree – is nonetheless a coherent view of the role of sex and procreation in human life. Its “natural law” has never fully addressed the reality of homosexual orientation – but that is partly because the entire concept is so new in the context of the history of the great monotheisms. I think it should be engaged respectfully on these grounds. But it is emphatically not mere bigotry; and many of us have grounded our own defense of civil gay equality without the need to disqualify large swathes of conscientious religious folks from polite company.

What does border on bigotry, to my mind, is the kind of casual dismissal of sincerely held religious beliefs you see in Greenhouse’s piece or in Isaac Chotiner’s rebuke to Damon Linker. You can pro-gay and for religious freedom. And it is vital that the gay rights movement is not co-opted once again by the illiberal left’s contempt for people of faith.