Need a logical defense of religious freedom? Look no further than First Things‘ “On the Square” web exclusive, where future University of St. Thomas assistant philosophy professor Tomas Bogardus tackles a proposed restriction of an idea long taken for granted in free countries. Peter Singer, the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, recently published an article, “The Use and Abuse of Religious Freedom,” which proposes to limit “the legitimate defense of religious freedom to rejecting proposals that stop people from practicing their religion.”
Singer’s article addresses some global examples. Recently, the Dutch parliament began reviewing legislation that would mandate the stunning of livestock before slaughter. This of course violates the customs of Judaism and Islam, both of which require practitioners to eat meat only from animals that were conscious when killed. To dissenting Jews and Muslims, Singer’s solution is simple: Don’t eat meat. He says, “When people are prohibited from practicing their religion—for example, by laws that bar worshiping in certain ways—there can be no doubt that their freedom of religion has been violated. But prohibiting the ritual slaughter of animals does not stop Jews or Muslims from practicing their religion.” Singer then transposes this approach to the HHS mandate: Because no Catholic teaching requires Catholics to establish and run hospitals, the state can order Catholics to provide employees with health care packages that cover birth control medications. If Catholics don’t like that, they can close the doors to their hospitals without damage to their doctrinal standards.
Bogardus’ response is well-reasoned and relevant:
One catches a glimpse of Singer’s utopia, full of vegetarian Muslims and Jews and Christians who employ no one. And all under compulsion of the state. His argument for this utopia has three steps. One: if a policy does not compel religionists to violate a teaching of their religion, then the policy is not an improper infringement on the practice of their religion. Two: if a policy does not unduly infringe upon the practice of a religion, it is not a violation of religious freedom. Three: since e.g. the Obama Administration’s mandate does not require Catholics to violate any Catholic dogma, Singer concludes that the mandate doesn’t violate Catholics’ religious freedom. Q.E.D., as philosophers are said to say.
So much for the argument. What shall we say in response? At least this: Singer’s argument succeeds only if every step is true. Yet the first two steps of Singer’s argument cannot both be true, since together they lead to absurd conclusions. Isn’t it possible, after all, for a policy to violate someone’s religious freedom even without compelling her to transgress any teaching of her religion?
He goes on to address both hypothetical and actual situations that, under the lens of Singer’s microscope, prove problematic. The full column is relevant, insightful and absolutely worth a read as issues of religious freedom become more pressing in our present context.