Expert: American Misunderstandings on Religious Liberty Affect Efforts Abroad

WASHINGTON – A former director of the State Department's Office of Religious Freedom believes misunderstandings regarding religious liberty in America have made it hard to advance religious liberty abroad.

"The United States is required by law to advance religious freedom in its foreign policy. It has been required to do that since 1998," said Dr. Thomas F. Farr, referring to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. "By and large we have done very poorly and there are many reasons for that. One of them is we are so confused about the meaning and reach of religious liberty."

Farr, who was among many speakers at the 2012 National Religious Freedom Conference on Thursday, feels that over the past half-century a series of court decisions have distorted the concept of religious liberty that the United States was founded on.

"There has to be a wall institutionally between the government and the church or religious groups," he said. "But many have taken that law of separation to think that it means separating religion from politics, which is precisely the opposite of what the Founding Fathers wanted."

The theme for this year's conference was "Rising Threats to Religious Freedom." A topic focused on at the event was the Health and Human Services Department's controversial mandate on reproductive services. Farr told CP that he believed the Obama Administration would be wise to expand the exemption they recently proposed to the mandate, declaring the current one too "narrow."

"[President Obama has] got to make a complete exemption conscience for all institutions and individuals in this HHS mandate, which is not only for contraceptives, but for abortion-inducing drugs and for sterilizations," he said.

"Simply to get rid of this very, very narrow exception which would apply only to religious groups that administer only to their own coreligionists [is not enough.] I don't know of any religious group born or unborn that doesn't care about the world outside their own."

The mandate requires employers to cover contraception, sterilization and some abortifacient drugs in their health insurance policies. The mandate has a religious exemption, but the exemption is so narrow that most religious organizations, such as hospitals and other nonprofits, would not qualify.

Professor Robert P. George of Princeton University also spoke at the conference where he contrasted the works of two nineteenth century philosophers who wrote about religious liberty – British philosopher John Stuart Mill and Cardinal John Henry Newman.

George argued that Mill's utilitarian and nonreligious perspective on religious liberty was limited and inaccurate due to his disdain for traditional religions and overly positive view of human nature. By contrast, Newman's views took into consideration the value of traditional religion and recognized that conscience was "nothing less than one's last best judgment," combining "faith and reason."

"I'm with Newman," said George before those gathered, noting that even as a devout Catholic Newman would "toast to the Pope, but to conscience first."

The day-long conference, sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, took place just days after 43 Catholic agencies filed suit against the federal government over the birth control mandate.