December 28, 2011 - 4:03 pm

In the United States, the right to religious liberty is protected from the government by the First Amendment by two clauses: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof[.]”

But who has the right to religious freedom? That is the war of interpretation that is being waged by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) along with a large segment of the Catholic healthcare industry against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which recently issued a decision to require comprehensive preventive healthcare for all women and girls by employers and health care providers. This comprehensive healthcare includes procedures covering all forms of birth control, emergency contraception, sterilization (such as tubal ligation), and the care and counseling that are needed with such services.

The USCCB took out a full page ad in The Washington Post on Wednesday, December 21, that proclaimed “Protect conscience rights.” The ad included the statement that “We, the undersigned, strongly support access to life-affirming health care for all[.]”  The ad continues, “[the HHS] rule will force Catholic organizations that play a vital role in providing health care and other needed services either to violate their conscience or severely curtail those services. This would harm both religious freedom and access to health care.” Finally, “[the rule] also harms society as a whole by undermining a long American tradition of respect for religious liberty and freedom of conscience. In a pluralistic society, our health care system should respect the religious and ethical convictions of all.” The ad then lists dozens of names of those who lead Catholic hospitals, colleges, and other organizations.

The wording in this ad should give pause to anyone who believes that religious liberty belongs to the individual—and not to an organization, church, charity, or hospital. And here is why.

Each of these entities—the church, the charity, and the hospital—are corporations under law, either for- or non-profit. They are created by collections of people. This is why corporations have CONSITUTIONAL rights already, such as freedom of speech (see Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 130 S.Ct. 876 (2010)). In fact, corporations have corporate personhood—which provides them many rights as individuals. A corporation can be sued like an individual, but as we all know most corporations have resources that outstrip the average individual.

When it comes to religious liberty, is it so farfetched that the individual right of religious liberty belongs to religious organizations and corporations? The wording in the USCCB ad seems to suggest this when it states the HHS rule will “force Catholic organizations that play a vital role in providing health care and other needed services … to violate their conscience[.]”  How easy would it be to assert that Catholic and other faith-based organizations must be given exceptions to laws because of their religious beliefs—else their collective religious freedom is being impinged on?

Here is the problem with that argument. If the government is providing taxpayer dollars to ANY organization—religious-based or not—that organization has an obligation to fulfill the full contract of services—whatever the government has required. If the organization cannot—or will not—fulfill the contract, no matter the reason, then the organization should not be accepting government funds. And the government must not accept bids for such contracts.

The individual who pays his or her taxes, who is a citizen, who has the right to the benefits of the healthcare regulations established by the government must be able to go to any healthcare facility that accepts any government funding and receive the full range of services and benefits—no exceptions.

It is the right of the individual to decide what healthcare services are or are not appropriate for his or herself. That right is severely restricted and harmed by any organization or corporation that predetermines what healthcare options are off-limits to an individual before he or she walks into, wheels into, or arrives by ambulance to a healthcare facility.

If the people who run Catholic organizations and hospitals feel so strongly that they cannot provide specific healthcare options to people who may or may not be Catholic and who may or may not share their religious beliefs, they should stop accepting government funds.

What would this mean? At least 20 percent of this country’s healthcare industry is run by Catholic corporations and organizations—and they all accept some kind of government assistance in the form of taxpayer funding. So the corporations and organizations would have to find private funds or close. The Catholic church has used this tactic to try to affect law before—a kind of blackmail: change the law to accommodate our religious beliefs or we, the Catholic church, will stop providing social or medical services.

The implication is that those the Catholic church, Catholic Charities, Catholic hospitals, and other Catholic organizations help—with taxpayer funds—will now suffer: homeless shelters will close, children in foster care will have no homes, and healthcare facilities will refuse treatment or close altogether. However blackmail only works if the victim has something to lose. The Catholic church has been using this tactic now for at least the past two years. And to their credit, local and state governments and the American people have shown this tactic is powerless.

For example, in 2010, when the District of Columbia passed its marriage equality law, the Catholic Diocese threatened to terminate all Catholic social services in the city. The Diocese backed down from that threat—it receives millions of dollars in district and federal taxpayer dollars to provide social services. Instead, the Diocese terminated its foster care program. The city quickly found homes for the children with secular organizations.

A similar situation on a much larger and sadder scale occurred this year in Illinois with the passage of that state’s civil union bill. Catholic Charities of Illinois ended all foster care services in the state rather than comply with state law to accept same-sex adoptive parents. Secular foster care services were either expanded or created to take care of all of the children.

The USCCB ad says that by restricting Catholic organizations and corporations with this rule, access to healthcare will become limited. However, if Catholic organizations and corporations will not provide the services mandated by law, they must forfeit taxpayer funding. This may well break the Catholic funding juggernaut that has stymied secular and even faith-based groups that wish to provide social services but have been unable to due to the lock that Catholic organizations have on federal and state taxpayer dollars.

Perhaps in the short term healthcare options and services may be limited, but under Catholic corporations and organizations they already are automatically due to Catholic dogma. But just like with the foster care providers, once the federal and state taxpayer dollars are available to secular and faith-based organizations that do not restrict services based on the religious beliefs of the people running them, the healthcare access and the overall healthcare system in this country would improve—especially for women and girls.

December 21, 2011 - 10:34 am

This time of year brings traditions and festivities for many people, including (but not limited to) Diwali, Thanksgiving, Human Light, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Boxing Day, Winter Solstice, New Year’s, and even Festivus.

In the United States where the majority of the population adheres to variations of Christianity, Christmas has become the dominate celebration. It has engulfed every aspect of society: school holiday celebrations and performances, decorations on public and private buildings, music played on radio stations and in stores, the commercials on television, and the economy’s reliance on the tradition of gift buying.

None of this is bad or wrong. What is problematic is the resistance those in the majority express to sharing the holiday with those who have a completely different view of the season. Atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers, and other nontheists may enjoy many of the cultural traditions that Christmas entails: decorations, the Christmas tree, exchanging gifts, secular holiday music, parties, and visiting family and friends. However, many nontheists also wish to convey their ideals of this time of year which include being good without religion.

Their insistence in recent years has come in many forms: billboards, freethought holiday trees, freethought displays to go alongside Christmas displays on public property, nonreligious messages on signs, and parade floats and bands with nontheistic members. Unfortunately, most of these nonreligious expressions have not been welcomed.

What is ironic and unfortunate about the lack of acceptance—or even tolerance—for more than one view of the holiday season is that Congress has spent time and effort to convince other countries that they really ought to be more considerate and respectful of the religious minorities in their countries.

For example, the U.S. House of Representatives agreed by a voice vote on December 13 to House Resolution 306, which in part includes “urging the Republic of Turkey to safeguard its Christian heritage” and “end all forms of religious discrimination.”

The House also seeks to establish a special envoy to promote religious freedom of religious minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia in H.R. 440. The envoy would be responsible for among other things promoting the rights of religious freedom of religious minorities in the countries of the Near East and South Central Asia, monitoring and combating acts of religious intolerance and incitement targeted against religious monitories, and working to ensure that the unique needs of religious minority communities in such countries are addressed, including the economic and security needs. These religious minority communities include Coptic Christians in Egypt; Baha’i in Iran; the Ahmaddiya Muslim sect in Pakistan; and Christians in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan.

Yet during this same session of Congress, the House also passed a resolution (H. Con. Res. 13) reaffirming the national motto as “In God We Trust,” disenfranchising millions of American citizens who do not trust in the Christian god—or any deity at all.

One of the biggest misconceptions is that Christianity is being pushed out of the public square. That simply isn’t true. What is true is that for decades—maybe even a couple of hundred years—in this country, Christianity has had a monopoly on the holiday traditions and expressions. But today, there are people of different backgrounds, beliefs, and traditions that help weave the fabric of our society.

Instead of seeing that as a threat to Christianity—which it is not—it should be the privilege and responsibility of the majority to ensure that those voices are heard.

The public square—in its many forms—belongs to all Americans. We must all learn to share it—or we end up fighting over it, which benefits no one and instead divides communities and hardens hearts and opinions.

This holiday season in the United States, millions of Christians are celebrating one of their most holy days and celebrations. There is no way to miss it—or avoid it. Is it too much to ask that the Christians respect and remember that they are not the only ones with beliefs and traditions during this time of the year? It does not take away from anyone’s beliefs, traditions, or religion to accept that we live in a diverse and wonderfully complicated society.

December 16, 2011 - 1:36 pm

It was 2007 and I stood amongst a long line of others at the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) conference, waiting with breathless anticipation to have Christopher Hitchens sign my copy of God Is Not Great.

Before me was a man who had helped me find my own expressions of strength and doubt about religion and atheism. But as I inched closer to him with each step, by the time my turn was up, I had forgotten everything I wanted to say. He gently pulled the book from my hands, and I blurted out “I’m a big fan!” Hitch paused, and looking up at me from over the rim of his glasses, asked “Do you know the root for the word ‘fan’?” My scrambled brain kicked in gear—and I said, “Fanatic.” He replied, “Correct, I don’t want fanatics. So next time you come see me, come with a great question instead.”

Abashed, but not quite embarrassed enough to run and hide, I asked for a picture. He kindly agreed.

That was my first personal encounter with a living legend in the nontheistic community. But he was so much more. Hitch was a lightning rod for controversy because he was not a liberal—he was a conservative and supported the Iraq war. A fact that caused many attendees of the FFRF conference to protest his appearance.

What made Hitch an inspiration and a role model for me were not so much his debates with religious leaders and politicians or his particular views, but his astounding breadth of knowledge, vocabulary, and ability to use words—written and orally—to eviscerate an opponent or convey the most intimate moments of life. Hitch never backed down and he rarely had cause. He did his research; he knew what he was talking about; and he backed up everything he said with facts, prose, poetry, and personal stories.

The second and final time I had a personal encounter with Christopher Hitchens was this past October at the joint Texas Freethought and Atheist Alliance for America Convention. Hitch made a rare appearance to accept an award and spoke for several minutes. Then graciously, along with his friend (and another nontheistic leader) Richard Dawkins, took questions from the audience.

I was ready this time to ask a “great question”—I hoped. When it was my turn to ask my question, I was able to share the story of the first time I met Hitch—with him and the entire audience. It was a wonderful moment for me to share with others how he had been so gracious—and a bit stern—to a wide-eyed kid. Then I asked him about how religion and the nontheistic movement could be better to women. And Hitch was Hitch—I received a wonderful answer about how and why religion has such an effect on women to their detriment.

That evening no one wanted to leave, it seemed—especially Hitch. When the evening came to a close, Hitch met with a young girl to provide her with a list of books he recommended she should read. That was one of his greatest gifts—his generosity; encouraging people to think for themselves.

This is the Hitch I will remember: the unparalleled intelligence, effortless wit, and countless kindnesses to everyday people who drew inspiration and strength from his words and actions.

Thank you, Mr. Hitchens, thank you.

October 28, 2011 - 3:45 pm

Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on “The State of Religious Liberty in the United States.”

The United States is the most religiously diverse country in the world. In no other nation can you find as many varied religious groups, beliefs and practices as there are here. The Founders’ recognized in their own times the great theological differences among not only different religions but also among the many Protestant sects. They saw the tyranny that government-sponsored religion wrought. That is why our nation has a secular constitution – and Bill of Rights—that provide strict protections for religious practice and safeguards against government-endorsed religion. Our secular government and protections of religion are what allow religion to flourish and grow here.

However, there has been a constant stream of legislation and executive action to impose religious ideas into law with the mistaken belief that what is good for one group of religious people should be good for everyone.

Whether it is slavery, a woman’s right to be a citizen, LGBT human rights and legal issues, advances in science and medicine, ideas about sex and reproduction, or how to live and die, there is always a religious viewpoint that insists everyone must accede according to its demands. This kind of religious bullying is exactly why Puritans, Calvinists, the Pilgrims and many others left England to find a place to practice their own religious views.

True religious freedom means that an individual has the choice to practice a faith of his or her choosing, or to choose not to practice any at all. Any kind of government mandate that allows an entity to force a religious edict on individuals becomes an establishment of religion because when the government allows such an edict, it is an implicit endorsement of that religious perspective and practice. This includes allowing religious organizations to discriminate in hiring practices against those who are not of the same faith after the organization has accepted federal tax dollars to sponsor its charitable efforts.

True religious freedom means that every citizen believes he or she is equally represented and favored by the government and elected officials. A national motto, pledge of allegiance, oaths of citizenship and oaths of office with the words “In God We Trust,” “under God,” and “so help me God” force many citizens to either profess a false belief, or speak out and risk alienation and public ridicule for not being in the majority.

True religious freedom means that elected leaders would cease passing countless bills at the state and federal levels criminalizing, overturning and outlawing social behaviors, medical procedures, educational standards and scientific research based on religious viewpoints instead of fact-based evidence and global standards for human rights.

The United States is the most welcoming country in the world to religion and faith. However, that welcome must be tempered by the rights of the individual who expresses opposing religious beliefs or no religious belief at all. The truest test of religious freedom is not the ability of every religious group to do as it pleases, but for every individual to be able to freely choose his or her own religious or nonreligious path without recrimination or consequence.


September 29, 2011 - 5:26 pm

Friday, September 30 is International Blasphemy Rights Day. It is a day to celebrate the right to speaking freely about ideas and things such as religions, gods, sacred books, and profanity. Unfortunately, not everyone has the right to say what they want about these things—some countries will punish you with fines, imprisonment, and death if you are found guilty of blasphemy. Even in societies such as the United States where religious freedom is celebrated, the criticism and questioning of others’ religious beliefs is frowned upon and often met with derision and hostility.

The right to blaspheme is where the rights of free speech and religious freedom intersect. In order to have a truly democratic and open society, all citizens must be able to speak openly and honestly about all things—even another’s religion, lack of religion, beliefs, gods, and sacred books—and be able to take the name of supernatural entities in vain: Holy Zeus!

Notable Countries that Criminalize Blasphemy

  • Afghanistan
  • Algeria
  • Australia
  • Bangladesh
  • Brazil
  • Denmark
  • Egypt
  • Finland
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • India
  • Indonesia
  • Iran
  • Ireland
  • Israel
  • Jordan
  • Malaysia
  • Malta
  • Netherlands
  • Nigeria
  • Pakistan


August 2, 2011 - 4:49 pm

Yesterday the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced dramatic new women’s health care guidelines that require preventative services, such as birth control, screenings, STD testing and counseling, and breastfeeding support and supplies, to be covered under most insurance plans without a copayment, coinsurance, or deductible.

The new policy could also require some clinics and hospitals run by religious organizations to provide these services even if they go against the group’s religious dogma. 

These new health plan coverage guidelines, made possible by the passage of the Affordable Care Act of 2010 (the health insurance reform legislation), were developed by the independent Institute of Medicine. HHS commissioned the Institute to determine what unique preventative services are necessary for women’s health and well-being. HHS has adopted all of the Institute’s recommendations.

You can see the full list of women’s preventative services covered and the details of when the coverage will take place (most beginning August 1, 2012) here.

The HHS guidelines offer a religious exemption for group health plans
sponsored by certain religious employers and group health insurance coverage connected to such plans in regards to the requirement to cover contraceptive services.

According to HHS under these guidelines, “a religious employer is one that : (1) has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose; (2) primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets; (3) primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets; and (4) is a non-profit organization under Internal Revenue Code section 6033(a)(1) and section 6033(a)(3)(A)(i) or (iii).”

This is a very narrow definition for “religious employer” and is actually closely modeled after a definition used in about 27 states that already mandate contraceptive services coverage. So it could mean that most religious organizations—and in particular Catholic hospitals, clinics, and charitable organizations—that serve their greater community will have to provide contraceptive services. HHS will issue a final guideline after a 60-day period to allow for comments on the religious exemption. Let’s hope that going forward women will receive the full benefit under these guidelines, no matter who their employer is, and leave it to the woman’s conscience – and not her employer’s religious dogma – to determine what is right for her.

Several religious leaders are already up in arms about the implications of the new guidelines.

For more information about how these guidelines will help women and society, visit here.

July 25, 2011 - 10:13 am

Or an agnostic, humanist, freethinker, or whatever secular label you define yourself with. On Friday, July 22, at a town hall meeting on the College Park campus of the University of Maryland, I had the rare opportunity to tell the president of the United States that I was an atheist—with a smile—on live television in a stadium filled with hundreds of people.

I have received lots of positive feedback from members of the secular community. Because I asked a question about employment discrimination in faith-based organizations that accept tax-payer funds, my Q&A with the president received mainstream media coverage as well.

As local, state, and national political elections begin to take shape across the country, members of the secular community have a wonderful opportunity—and maybe even a duty—to start asking all candidates where they stand when it comes to the rights of nontheists.

The most common criticism I have received after asking my question at the town hall was that it was not appropriate at a gathering meant to focus on the debt crisis and the economy. Well, my question did focus on the economy—just not an area most people probably were expecting.

But no matter the forum, it is never wrong to ask our elected officials—or those who want to become our governmental representatives—about our civil liberties. Too often civil liberties are pushed to the back of politicians’ priority lists when there is an economic crisis or a terrorist threat.

We need members of the secular community to show up at local, state, and national events, identify themselves as nontheists, and ask candidates and incumbents how they will represent the secular community. Doing so may be newsworthy and scary for some, so this must be a personal decision. But doing this will show our fellow citizens and our nation just how many of us there are—and give us the voice in government that we deserve and need in order to affect change at every level of government.

Standing up and telling the president and hundreds of people while on live television that I was an atheist was one of the proudest moments of my life. I hope other nontheists take the opportunity to do the same.

June 29, 2011 - 9:45 am

Should a person who is terminally ill with no hope for recovery and no reasonable quality of life be given the choice to end his or her suffering? Not according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

On June 16, the USCCB issued a statement against physician-assisted suicide. The USCCB said that such an act is a “threat to human dignity” and instead urged patients to accept the Christian view that “suffering accepted in love can bring [followers] closer to the mystery of Christ’s sacrifice for the salvation of others.”

“Death with dignity,” “compassionate choices,” and “physician-assisted suicide” all refer to ways in which a terminally ill person chooses when to end his or her own life when medical treatment no longer offers any hope of recovery or a quality of living that is bearable to the person. Only three states have officially given the green light to such practices: Oregon, Washington, and Montana. Oregon and Washington have strict regulations that protect the individual and the medical personnel involved in the decision. Montana’s officials are stilling working on its regulations.

I don’t doubt that the Catholic bishops care about human life—but I fail to see the care and compassion that urges acceptance of suffering or the bishops’ refusal to recognize the right of a person to choose when it is time to end his or her own suffering.

Life isn’t just about existence; it is about substance. The USCCB quote the Founders and say that because “life” comes before “liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence that “life” is the most sacred of rights. I don’t know why they are in that order, but I do know that denying a person the liberty to choose what to do with his or her life is not the way to ensure that a life is lived to the fullest. It is a denial of free will and a rejection of the fundamental right of self-determination.

The USCCB has no sway over my life or my choices, but as an organization it wields great power over the network of Catholic hospitals, charities, and other Catholic organizations that must abide by its directives and decisions—and therefore over the millions of non-Catholics who are served by these medical institutions and groups every day. And perhaps even more alarming, the USCCB has no compunction about making its religious views political issues for its members and elected Catholic political leaders.

So to the USCCB members, I say take your palliative care and loving acceptance of suffering and keep it. I’ll take the memory of Dr. Jack Kevorkian and end-of-life care in the Northwest, instead.

More information about choice and care at the end of life is available here