During the recent debate over birth control insurance coverage, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops defined religious freedom as theirfreedom from government.
The First Amendment does, of course, protect religions from government interference in rites and beliefs. But the opposite is also true, and equally important. The “establishment clause” also protects people from efforts by leaders of any church to impose their religious beliefs on the public.
A federal judge affirmed this second (but not secondary) meaning on Friday. US District Judge Richard Stearns ruled in ACLU of Massachusetts v. Kathleen Sebelius et al. that the government cannot allow the Conference of Catholic Bishops to prohibit the use of federal money under its control for birth control counseling.
“To insist that the government respect the separation of church and state is not to discriminate against religion,” Judge Stearns wrote. “Indeed it promotes a respect for religion by refusing to single out any creed for official favor at the expense of all others.”
The facts of the case: The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 allocated money to combat “a contemporary manifestation of slavery whose victims are predominantly women and children.” In November 2005, the Bush administration gave the CCB a contract to administer the bulk of the money, and allowed it to stipulate that it would not permit any subcontractor to provide “referral for abortion services or contraceptive materials.” That is, it permitted a religious organization to decide how to disburse (or not disburse) federal funds, muddling dogma with policy.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued in 2009, and the Obama administration declined to renew the contract with the CCB, but Judge Stearns issued a ruling, anyway, because both parties wanted an answer to the constitutional questions raised by the dispute. He wrote: “This case is about the limits of the government’s ability to delegate to a religious institution the right to use taxpayer money to impose its beliefs on others (who may or may not share them).”
I’m sure the ruling will be appealed; the CCB is nothing if not persistent.