How we protect religious freedom
By Congressman Joe Pitts
Terrible violence again erupted in Egypt as the Muslim Brotherhood and the military struggled for power. In the background, Coptic Christians, members of neither group, saw their churches burned and their communities attacked.
Since the Arab Spring broke out, more than 100,000 Copts have left their homeland for safer nations. Who are Coptic Christians? A Christian sect that predates the founding of Islam, they make up about 10 percent of the population of Egypt today. For many years, I’ve had relationships with Copts and tried to work with them to protect all religious minorities in Egypt. It deeply saddens me to see them caught up in this turmoil.
Under the brief rule of the Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi, Copts faced increasing persecution. The old autocratic government was gone, and it was the new democratic government that was attacking religious liberty. Now, with the military back in power, Muslim Brotherhood protestors have escalated their attacks.
The United States and Egypt have few similarities, but what happened to Copts under an elected government is a powerful reminder that democracy and liberty do not always go hand-in-hand. Our Founding Fathers knew this to be true. They knew that even a government guided by the people was no guarantee of human rights.
Here in the United States we have been blessed to have relatively little religious violence in our history. This comes from the fact that so many Americans came to our shores explicitly because of religious persecution. In Pennsylvania, that tradition is especially strong because of William Penn’s explicit support of oppressed religious minorities. Traditions, however, are also no guarantee of religious rights.
Our Constitution and the Bill of Rights is a magnificent founding document. The First Amendment is explicit in its guarantees of the rights of religious freedom, freedom of speech and of the press. But even this is still not an ironclad guarantee that freedom will be protected today and in the future.
In order to guarantee our freedom, the people, elected officials and judges have to show restraint and respect the rights of others even when we disagree. Only continuing vigilance is a guarantee that liberty will continue in our country.
As a high school teacher who taught science and math, I know the value of a quality education. I believe that every child should have an opportunity to learn. However, we have in our community Amish families who do not send their children to school past the eighth grade. I wholeheartedly believe that it would be good for these children to continue their education, but supporting constitutional freedoms means not imposing my beliefs on others.
Likewise, I served our nation in the Air Force, flying missions over Vietnam. I believe we should be ready to fight to protect our nation’s freedom. Here in the 16th District, we have many whose religious beliefs lead them to reject all violence. In the United States, we allow people who are conscientious objectors to forgo service in the military.
After passage of Obamacare, the government has declared that all private employers and even religious charities and schools must provide a full range of contraceptive services, including sterilization and drugs that could lead to abortion. I do not have the same objection to many of these services as other Americans of faith.
However, I don’t believe the government should have the right to force them to violate their beliefs. What we have here a clear case where the majority is trampling on the rights of minority religious views. The bureaucrats at the Department of Health and Human Services don’t understand why anyone would object to these services.
Frankly, they don’t need to understand. They need to recognize that these beliefs are deeply held and are founded in religious teaching that predates the foundation of our country.
The Obamacare contraceptive mandate is excessive. The law itself is not explicit in requiring that these services be forced on employers. Many of the bill’s supporters were even distressed to see the law being used this way.
This should be another issue where Americans agree to disagree. Using the power of the government to compel people to violate their conscience risks dividing our nation. Despite our grand traditions, we are harming an amendment that both preserves liberty and harmony.