Two dissenting judges said as much in the case of the registrar: She deserved to keep her job, they held, because no one was turned away on account of her exercise of conscience and that there were others there who could do the job. But the narrowing infects even the dissenters. Her claim is a light one, they contend, because she is not operating in a clearly religious context. If a priest were the one refusing, the objection would be a much clearer case, they offered.
Or would it? We are on the edge of a moral cliff and in danger of falling off in terms of the freedom we deem worth protecting.
Here in the United States, public discourse is confused about the HHS mandate because it involves the most intimate of issues and because it has been the subject of a disingenuous campaign that has obscured the fundamental conscience concern, the unprecedented nature of the trampling on the freedom of some and how that’s important for all. But the situation in Britain could and should be a cautionary tale for us. A poll of self-identified gays, lesbians, and bisexuals there last year commissioned by Catholic Voices found that the majority of those who supported same-sex marriage believe such marriages should be able to take place in church. True, a majority among those said they would not likely make use of the right, but they still considered it a matter of “true equality.” Would this come to pass, civil law would be defining the terms of religious worship, as well as other questions of religious freedom, even within the walls of a church. It’s actually not a far cry from some of the considerations before courts today on both sides of the Atlantic.
“Religious freedom in Britain is in an extremely weak position,” said Paul Diamond, one of the lawyers involved in the religious-freedom cases heard in Strasbourg. He attributes the situation to “a combination of aggressive secularism . . . and significant demographic changes.” But, despite a still fairly recent globally celebrated royal church wedding in high Christian form, the British are immersed in a “progressive” campaign toward pushing Judaeo-Christian values from the public square. It’s not just a British thing, he emphasizes, but a campaign throughout the West, and in fact Brits, he says, are becoming “the experts at a new form of ‘rear guard’ tactic to reverse an oppressive situation.”
The “wake-up call” for Diamond was a 2001 case by which he was “personally horrified,” in which an elderly street preacher with a placard that read “Jesus Gives Peace, Jesus is Alive, Stop Immorality, Stop Homosexuality, Stop Lesbianism, Jesus is Lord” was attacked by a crowd and subsequently arrested and fined for incitement. This is not what civilized people do — although it’s true that Christians are by no means the only ones punished for “offensive speech.”
These misunderstandings of words like “tolerance” and “equality” are not new, but we slouch closer toward tyranny with each one — especially as they become more official and coercive. Diamond is hopeful for Americans, citing our “robust” commitment to that which has made us exceptional. We have miles to go, however, if we are going to meet his admiring expectations.