On Both Sides of Atlantic, Faceless Bureaucrats Are Assailing Religious Freedom

In late January, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a rule that requires nearly all employers, including many affiliated with religious institutions, to pay for health insurance covering sterilization, contraceptives, and abortifacient treatment for all eligible employees. In so doing, the Department’s bureaucrats launched an attack on religious liberty that directly contravenes the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

They are not alone. In the United Kingdom, bureaucrats at the Advertising Standards Authority have decided to ban leaflets from a Christian outreach group that stated that God can heal the sick, on the basis that the statement could “encourage false hope” and was “irresponsible.” These moves demonstrate a deep hostility to religious freedom on the behalf of the progressive bureaucratic establishment that threatens a fundamental underpinning of western civilization.

The HHS rulemaking has been presented as a simple matter of women’s health by the department and its supporters (such as Democratic US Senators Jeanne Shaheen, Barbara Boxer, and Patty Murray). It is precisely this approach that is so disturbing. If it were a simple matter of women’s health, there would be little opposition. However, the ruling directly assaults freedom of conscience. It requires, for example, that Catholic hospitals, which carry out the Church’s ministry to the sick, to put aside a basic tenet of the religion that inspires that ministry by paying for something the Church believes is destructive of human life.

As the Catholic Bishop of Arlington, Virginia, the Most Reverend Paul S. Loverde, put it, “I am absolutely convinced that an unprecedented and very dangerous line has been crossed that goes to the heart of the freedom of religion, and that this action does intolerable violence to our First Amendment rights.” A bureaucracy that cannot distinguish between women’s health and a frontal attack on a fundamental freedom is a very dangerous bureaucracy indeed. I say bureaucracy for a reason: although the department theoretically got the legal authority for this action under the Obamacare law, HHS did not have to make this ruling. It was the bureaucrats in the department who wrote the rule, and it was they who ignored this most basic objection. (For more detail on precisely why the rule is unconstitutional, see Horace Cooper’s excellent treatment for the National Center for Public Policy Research).

Similarly, in the UK, the Advertising Standards Authority, an organisation even less accountable than the America’s HHS, had no need to ban a leaflet. It normally restricts its activities to claims about the efficacy of drugs, or, as Brendan O’Neill puts it, “policing displays of cleavage in film posters.” It has no need to extend those powers to claims of the efficacy of faith. Indeed, as Andrew Lilico points out, following C.S. Lewis, it cannot possibly judge the efficacy of prayer, for prayer, properly understood, is a request. There can be no scientific proof of causation for the granting of a request.

In both of these cases, bureaucracies have overreached, and it seems deliberately so. The reasons why should be obvious: religious groups are private institutions that provide services often provided by government without the need for the coercive force of the state. As such, they are direct competitors to the bureaucracy. It should therefore come as no surprise that bureaucrats should seek to hobble or eliminate this competition. Then government can take over religious functions such as hospitals, counseling, or (dare I say it) marriage.

The bureaucrats are playing with fire. There is a reason the First Amendment to the US Constitution bans government from interfering with the free exercise of religion. It is rooted in the attempts to crush religious freedom in England in the seventeenth century, which led to the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. The Indian Mutiny was sparked by a mandate that required Muslim and Hindu soldiers to bite into bullet casings greased with animal fat. Other examples abound. Public revolts over these attacks on religious freedom are likely to be peaceful, but the end result may be the destruction of bureaucracy’s privileges and a reinstatement of genuine liberty of conscience.

(For further commentary on this issue, see Jay Ambrose, Carrie Lukas, and the approriately-named Don Devine.)