Desecrating the Name of Religious Liberty

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The mandate from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that requires health care plans to cover contraceptives, among other controversial procedures, has engendered a ludicrous debate from both sides of the issue. Unfortunately, the St. John’s community has fallen into the mud-slinging contest that the issue has devolved into.

The Catholic Church’s stance on contraception and abortion is well-known and proclaimed loudly by the powers-that-be in the Church whenever the issue is raised. Of course, they have the right to protest against things like birth control – even when the vast majority of the public (according to numerous polls) disagrees with them.

But recognizing that their position – that contraception is wrong, no matter the reason for taking it – is untenable in 2012, the Church has adopted a new tactic in their opposition to the law, saying that the law infringes on “religious freedom” by requiring large Catholic institutions, the University being one of them, to
provide health insurance plans that cover things like female birth control and abortion services to employees of all religions.

And to rally opposition to the mandate, a protest, organized by the University through Campus Ministry, is scheduled on the Great Lawn on March 22. The focus, the group’s Facebook page – created by the vice president of Students for Life – says, is “moral principle and religious liberty.”

I understand that, to devout Catholics, this issue is one of moral principle.

But to say it’s one of “religious liberty” makes me sick.

I find it sad that the Catholic Church, statistically the largest single Christian denomination in the country by more than 50 million people in the United States, according to the 2011 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, has the audacity to claim that their religion – which about a quarter of the country practices – is the one under siege.

I was dedicated in the Seventh-day Adventist Church when I was a baby. I went to Sabbath School (our version of Sunday school) as a child, taught it in high school and was baptized in eighth grade.

You might never have heard of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. We’re a small (but growing) denomination, with less than 20 million members worldwide.

Growing up in a small town in Massachusetts, where about 90 percent of the population is both white and Catholic, not too many people I grew up with knew what it was either. Nor do many people here at St. John’s. Our church broadly follows Old Testament rules on eating (which means no bacon for me) and celebrates our worship service on Saturday, the seventh day, as mandated in the Ten Commandments. And from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday, we don’t do any secular work.

My friends used to call me Jewish – at first, out of ignorance, and then, to make fun of me. Yes, where I’m from, people make fun of Jews. I never got it either.

I remember my first job interview, when the manager looked at my availability and saw that I couldn’t work Saturday. At that point, the interview was over.

I remember during basketball season, when any church-going players were allowed to come late (or not at all) to practice on Sunday if they went to church, no questions asked. But when I requested the occasional Saturday off, there was always a raised eyebrow.

Even now, when I have a job that gives me Saturdays off, I still get quizzical looks when I explain why I don’t work Saturdays. Something tells me if I did the same for Sundays, I wouldn’t have that problem.

More than once, we’ve had sermons in our church that talked about Adventists who were fired from their jobs because of their views on the Sabbath. There’s Adventist literature devoted to the subject, and the (very, very, very small) Adventist lobby is pushing Congress to enact the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, or WRFA, to ensure that these injustices stop.

It’s not something I think about on a daily basis, but I sometimes wonder how I’ll ever be successful and keep the most basic principle of my faith.

Because of these reasons, I don’t talk about religion much, and I never have outside of my church family. I try to pray to God and read my Bible every night – I don’t think any of my friends know that. As a prospective journalist, I have no idea what I’m going to do when I get a job and am asked to work on Saturdays.

And when subjects like abortion come up, I tend to stay out of the debate.

Despite the issues I face, I’m still Christian, and thus immune from most issues of religious freedom. I can’t imagine people who practice other faiths, like Islam, go through, especially those who don’t live in diverse cities like New York.

It’s easy to rail against every slight to religion when everybody around you is of the same faith. It’s easy to shout one’s moral thoughts from the mountaintops when the leader of your denomination also happens to be a Holy Rock Star. And it’s easy not to know what real religious discrimination is when most people haven’t faced it in their lifetime.

Requiring religious institutions to provide insurance plans that cover contraception is in no interpretation of the term a “threat” to religious liberty. Catholic Mass won’t be celebrated any differently; no churchgoers will have to choose between their faith and their job because of it.

Instead, it’s a measure that the Church and a minority of its followers disagree with on moral grounds. There’s nothing wrong with that. But call it what it is, and don’t disrespect people for whom religious liberty is a real issue.