ROME – This is one of those pieces that may come off initially as an almost surreal exercise in mixing apples and oranges, but bear with me, because I believe two recent stories involving religious freedom actually shed some light on one another.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court asked lawyers for both the Obama administration and the Little Sisters of the Poor to file additional briefs in a case arising from the sisters’ claim that mandates imposed by health care reform, which require coverage of contraception and certain drugs regarded as abortion-causing, violate their religious beliefs.
It’s become the leading symbol of what many observers, prominently including America’s Catholic bishops, see as a worrying erosion of religious liberty in the country, while others believe religious groups such as the sisters just don’t want to play by the same rules as everyone else.
The U.S. bishops have invested considerable resources trying to generate public support for protecting religious freedom, including launching an annual “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign that runs from June 21, the vigil of the Feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More, to July 4, Independence Day.
Americans are all about freedom, of course, and in the abstract, most would say religious believers ought to have the right to think and worship as they choose. The hard part comes when religious beliefs collide with public policy, and then opinions in America tend to polarize in a hurry – beyond the mandates, think Kim Davis for an example.
Hold that thought, while I recap the other news story.
On Easter Sunday, bombs exploded in a public park in Lahore, Pakistan, known to be frequented by Christians. A Taliban group claimed responsibility and said the intended victims were Christians, although many of those killed were actually Muslims.
In all, 76 men, women and children perished and 350 were injured, many of them seriously. During his Easter Regina Coeli address, Pope Francis condemned the act.
“I wish to express my closeness to all those affected by this cowardly and senseless crime and ask you to pray to the Lord for the numerous victims and their loved ones,” he said.
Last Saturday, an inter-faith press conference was staged in Lahore, bringing together Muslim, Christian and Sikh leaders, all expressing outrage over the assault and demanding greater protection of religious freedom and of minorities.
“In this attack, the blood of humanity has been shed,” said Maulana Abdul Khabir Azad, Grand Imam of the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore.
“We have prayed in the mosque for all those Christians and Muslims who have lost their lives,” he said. “All of them are martyrs, and the blood of the martyrs will not go in vain.”
Dominican Father James Channan, who runs a Peace Center in Lahore, noted that many of the deadliest attacks against Christians in Pakistan come on Sundays, when they’re gathered in large numbers for worship services, and demanded that the government pay financial compensation to the victims.
“Our government must make Pakistan a peaceful place to live,” Channan said.
No reasonable person, and certainly no American raised on the national gospel of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” would look at what happened in Lahore on Easter Sunday as anything other than intolerable.
Therein lies its relevance to the Little Sisters case.
Perhaps if more Americans were aware of what societies that have eviscerated religious freedom actually look like, of the toxic consequences of such a drift, they’d be more open to the argument for protecting religious freedom at home.
Granted, the United States is hardly going to start experiencing Lahore-style assaults overnight if the Little Sisters lose at the Supreme Court. Yet once any society starts down the path of eroding the rights of a specific class of people, whether defined by religion or anything else, history does not offer many examples of it ending well.
Attention to assaults on religious freedom around the world, therefore – including what I’ve referred to as the “global war on Christians,” of which the recent Pakistani attack is a particularly appalling example – is not in any sense a distraction from domestic concerns.
Instead, it’s a way of reshaping perspectives, so ordinary people have a clearer idea of what’s at stake, and a stronger sense of the potential long-term outcomes, however unintended, they’ll surely wish to avoid.