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Where's OUR Religious Liberty?

by Mark Gabrish Conlan/Zenger's Newsmagazine Friday, Mar. 02, 2012 at 4:47 PM (619) 688-1886 P. O. Box 50134, San Diego, CA 92165

The recent controversy over whether institutions owned by the Roman Catholic Church should be required to include birth control coverage in the health insurance they offer employees, the attempt in Virginia to require women seeking abortions to submit to medical rape, and the radical Right's reaction to the 9th Circuit appeals court ruling that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional raises the question: why does it seem as if only bigoted Right-wing churches have "religious liberty" in this country? Why are America's officially tolerated spiritual belief systems seemingly limited to those of the Roman Catholics, Mormons and Southern Baptist Convention?

Where’s OUR Religious Liberty?


Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

For those concerned with justice and equality in the United States, the first two weeks in February were “one step forward, two steps back.” The one step forward was the marvelous decision of a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in the Perry v. Brown lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Proposition 8, the ban on same-sex marriage equality passed by California voters in November 2008. Judge Stephen Reinhardt, who wrote the 2-1 majority decision, is someone whose family knows something about prejudice and injustice; his grandfather, Max Reinhardt, was a famous theatre director in 1920’s Berlin who fled Germany in 1933 when the Nazis took over.

Though Reinhardt didn’t write with the kind of winged eloquence Judge Vaughn Walker had in the district court decision he was upholding, he quietly and calmly eviscerated all of the arguments Proposition 8’s sponsors had put forward for it. “Proposition 8’s only effect … was to withdraw from Gays and Lesbians the right to employ the designation of ‘marriage’ to describe their committed relationships and thus to deprive them of a societal status that affords dignity to those relationships,” Judge Reinhardt wrote. “Proposition 8 could not have reasonably been enacted to promote childrearing by biological parents, to encourage responsible procreation, to proceed with caution in social change, to protect religious liberty, or to control the education of schoolchildren. Simply taking away the designation of ‘marriage,’ while leaving in place all the substantive rights and responsibilities of same-sex partners, did not do any of the things its proponents now suggest were its purposes.”

Unfortunately, in the wake of this court decision America took two steps backwards in the long search for freedom and liberty. First, the Obama administration’s decision to require free coverage for birth control as part of the implementation of its hard-fought health insurance reform blew up in their faces, as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops tore into the mandate and demanded it be reversed. Obama, being Obama, made a half-hearted attempt at compromise — Roman Catholic employers wouldn’t have to provide such coverage but their insurance companies would — that was almost immediately rejected by the bishops. Meanwhile, the enormous Right-wing propaganda machine — media outlets like talk radio and Fox News, and the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives — grabbed hold of the issue and denounced it as Obama’s and the Democrats’ latest attack on “religious liberty.”

And as if that weren’t enough bad news, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum — who has not only denounced homosexuality as comparable to having sex with dogs but has said that true freedom means not doing what you want to do but doing what you’re “supposed” to do (by whose standard?) — quietly emerged as the new front-runner for the Republican Presidential nomination with victories in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado and zoomed ahead of Mitt Romney in the polls in Michigan, the state where Romney was born and in which he had been expected to win easily. Santorum, a hard-core Right-wing Catholic and lifelong opponent of women’s and Queer equality, epitomizes, more than anyone else in the race, the internally divided Right-wing consensus on the role of government: none when it comes to securing people’s economic security, all-encompassing when it comes to enforcing anti-woman, anti-choice, anti-Queer “moral” codes.

When the San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (S.A.M.E.) and other local groups were hosting their February 7 rally in support of the Ninth Circuit’s decision in the Proposition 8 case, one of the most important points was made by Lisa Kove, who as an employee of the U.S. Defense Department has to preface every public speech she makes with a disclaimer that she’s representing only her own views and not those of her employer. She talked about how the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy preventing Queers from serving openly in the U.S. military was finally repealed — at least for Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals, not for Transgender people — but the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 is still in place and as a result, same-sex couples still cannot get married on U.S. military bases.

“That violates our right to religious freedom,” Kove said, “because I’m a Reform Jew, and we believe in marriage equality. We need freedom of all religions, not just their religions.”

The more I’ve thought about that since Kove said it, the more it’s resonated with me. Why should the anti-woman, anti-Queer bigots of Roman Catholicism, evangelical Christianity and Orthodox Judaism be able to represent themselves as the sole arbiters of what Americans are allowed to believe about who or what created them, their proper role in the universe and what, if anything, is going to happen to them after they die? Where’s our religious freedom? Isn’t declaring same-sex marriage illegal on the basis of some people’s religious beliefs a direct violation of the First Amendment — which, in case you’ve forgotten it, begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”? Aren’t laws like Proposition 8 “respecting an establishment of religion” and oppressing Reform Jews, Unitarian-Universalists, United Church of Christ members and other denominations whose ministers would want to marry their same-sex and opposite-sex congregants equally, and would do so if the laws permitted?

And where’s our freedom to do what we want to with our bodies, and to choose how to deal with the consequences thereof? The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops made it clear in their statement on the birth control coverage issue that, contrary to the way the Right is framing the issue, it isn’t about “religious liberty” at all. It’s about their ability to dictate to the rest of the country what health coverage we shall have. If you don’t believe me, go to their Web site,, and read their statement, which claims that President Obama “has decided to retain HHS’s nationwide mandate of insurance coverage of sterilization and contraception, including some abortifacients. This is both unsupported in the law and remains a grave moral concern. We cannot fail to reiterate this, even as so many would focus exclusively on the question of religious liberty.” [Emphasis in original.]

Where’s our religious liberty? And for that matter, where are the other rights we’re supposedly guaranteed by the First Amendment: “the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”? Where are the liberties of the people in the Occupy movements, who have sought to use their free-speech and assembly rights to petition the government for a redress of grievances? In San Diego, they were told that “Occupy people” weren’t allowed into the mayor’s office to do that, and in city after city they have been swept out of their public gathering places, their belongings thrown into dumpsters and discarded, with police essentially making up “laws” on the fly and using them as excuses to arrest the Occupiers without such bothersome nuisances as their Fifth Amendment right not to “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

And where’s our freedom of the press? The media in this country are dominated by an ever-shrinking handful of giant corporations who propagandize endlessly for a view of the nation, the society and, indeed, life itself dominated by the primacy of “the market.” We are told that “it’s your fault” if you’re unemployed, that unions are immoral and corrupt, that any attempt to regulate the environment or the economy is an intolerable assault on the huge corporations — the so-called “job creators” — who run our lives and determine whether we shall be permitted to earn our livings, where we may live, what we may eat, whether we will be cared for when we are sick and even when and how we will be allowed to die.

Just as the U.S. has two corporate-dominated political parties, the center-Right Democrats and the far-Right Republicans, so it has two corporate-dominated media parties, the center-Right “mainstream” or “legacy” media (the broadcast TV networks, the major urban newspapers) which offer a small range of views within the limits of what their corporate masters deem “acceptable”; and the far-Right media of talk radio and Fox News, who propagandize 24/7 for a radical-Right view of capitalism and patriotism that ridicules and trashes any concern about the poor, working people, the environment, people of color, Queers or anyone else who doesn’t fit their narrow idea of what constitutes the “real America.” Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez recently took a trip to California’s Central Valley to interview several Right-wingers, and among other things he got an earful about the so-called “liberal media” being out to get Republicans “even though I’d just listened to nine hours of syndicated Democrat-bashing on the car radio because that was about all I could pick up.”

Where is our freedom of the press? Yes, I can write this without realistic fear of being arrested for it. I can put it into a publication and put it out on the street for a handful of people to read. Other people in charge of magazines like The Nation, The Progressive, In These Times, The American Prospect and Mother Jones can put similar messages out for somewhat larger audiences than I can. We can, for the time being, post online — at least until the Republicans get rid of Net neutrality and thereby turn the Internet into just as thorough a transmission belt for radical-Right propaganda, with a smattering of center-Right propaganda for so-called “balance,” as all the other electronic media are. When I was a boy I saw, in a book of British artist David Low’s World War II cartoons called Years of Wrath, a drawing of Adolf Hitler sitting at a huge organ labeled “Anti-Democracy Propaganda” and glaring down at a tiny figure of a girl with a flute labeled “Pro-Democracy Propaganda.” Hitler yelled at her, “Will you shut up? I can’t hear myself think!”

That’s what Leftists, progressives and liberals have become in this country: the little girl with the flute, gamely carrying on as best we can while the man at the organ plays as loud as he can and still gets irritated that he can’t drown us out completely. Sometimes we get enough flutes together that our message filters out past our own little circle and a few people wake up — as they did when Occupy Wall Street and the other Occupy movements it inspired actually got out the idea that maybe it’s a bad thing if one percent of the population controls 50 percent of this nation’s wealth and income. But then we still face the challenge of holding their attention against the giant sound of the organ that sings 24/7, “THE MARKET IS GOD … CAPITALISM IS THE ONLY WAY … PROFITS ARE SACRED … IF YOU’RE NOT RICH, IT’S YOUR FAULT.”

That’s America’s idea of “freedom,” “liberty,” “democracy” for you. We haven’t got rid of religious oppression; we’ve just outsourced it to the Roman Catholic Church, the Mormons, the Southern Baptist Convention and other religious institutions who preach a narrow, bigoted, anti-woman, anti-Queer, anti-equality, pro-1 percent view of the Judeo-Christian tradition. We haven’t got rid of censorship; we’ve simply privatized it, making corporations rather than the government gatekeepers of which political and social views are considered “acceptable” for this country’s people to hear and which are not. The Constitution guarantees each state “a Republican Form of Government,” and that’s just what we have: a republican form that conceals the substance of a corporate and religious dictatorship.
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