Religious freedom issues tricky

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Abortion and same-sex marriage will get ample airtime during the campaign. But add to the agenda the notion that religious freedom is under attack.

Conservative Catholics and evangelicals are driving the topic, which Rick Santorum and Rick Perry pressed during the primaries with their suggestion that the Obama administration has declared war on religion. Most Republicans agree. Sixty percent of Republicans think religious freedoms are in jeopardy, according to a March poll by the Public Religion Research Institute and Religion News Service. The poll found 69 percent of Democrats don't consider religious liberties under attack.

Both sides have a point -- and each is missing something important.

Let's start with the Obama administration requirement that employers provide birth control through health plans. The mandate illustrates where some liberals fail to recognize an issue of religious liberty.

Yes, the administration exempted houses of worship. But Catholic leaders claimed the move violated their teachings about contraception. They were right, especially in how far government can go in forcing a faith to compromise its identity.

The administration scrambled to compromise, proposing that insurers be required to fund the contraceptive coverage of workers in religiously affiliated organizations.

But last month, 43 institutions sued. They argue -- persuasively -- that this debate isn't just about contraception. It's about religious freedom, which remains threatened.

During an e-mail exchange last week, Bishop Kevin Farrell, who heads the Dallas diocese, backed that claim. I especially was struck by his contention that the compromise creates an unworkable formula for determining which organizations can be exempted from the ruling.

For instance, to qualify for the exemption, an institution must primarily serve people who share the institution's religious beliefs. How will Washington enforce that provision? Should it survey every client who enters, say, a Catholic charity to determine how many are Catholic? That's a slippery slope for any administration to head down.

Religious privilege

Now, let's flip this discussion around, and look at how conservatives, especially conservative evangelicals, miss a key point in their concerns. In their case, they too often confuse religious freedom with religious privilege. Specifically, some seem to want an advantage for their faith, which leads them to complain when they feel that privilege is not being upheld.Confusing freedom and privilege could explain why many evangelicals believe religious freedoms are threatened. In that March survey, 61 percent said such liberties were in jeopardy. They complained about God being taken out of public life and hostility toward Christianity.Todd Starnes of Fox News Radio exemplified this view in a book complaining that Obama has declared war on Christianity. You also see some conservative Christians seeking an advantage when they argue for putting the Ten Commandments in courthouses, an action that ignores the views of others.

William Lawrence, dean of the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, recently put a fine point on the freedom vs. privilege distinction. Writing on the Dallas Morning News' Texas Faith blog, he noted: "Crusades have been launched in support of a child who wanted to distribute candy canes in the Christmas season and a teenage high school valedictorian who wanted to offer a prayer rather than a speech. The crusades raise attention and money on the pretext that the freedom of religion in America is under attack.

"Actually, what these crusaders have recognized -- but will not admit -- is that religious privilege is under attack. The Constitution of the United States protects religious freedom, but it also prohibits religious privilege."

Of course, some argue that Catholic leaders want a privilege, not just a freedom. But they are actually raising important questions about how far government can go in forcing any people of faith to change their beliefs.

Religious freedom played a role in America's founding, so it's natural to debate the topic in a campaign. But beware: This issue is a tricky one, real tricky.

William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Email: wmckenzie@dallasnews.com