The Common Good

At Stake: Religious Liberty

Alec Hill. Image via InterVarsity.org.
Alec Hill. Image via InterVarsity.org.

A letter from Alec Hill, President of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA to Intervarsity Staff

I’m upset.

Last month, the Federal government mandated that Catholic universities, hospitals and charities must provide – and pay for – contraceptives to their employees and students. The mandate may also — depending upon interpretation – include the provision of sterilization services and the morning-after pill. (There appears to be some disagreement amongst scholars regarding the potential scope of the new Health and Human Service mandate.)

Why should I care? I am not Catholic. Nor do I agree with Catholic teaching on contraception, though I do have grave concerns about the morning-after pill.

Politically, I am a moderate and hence not prone to condemn every governmental edict.

I care because this matter touches upon the religious freedom of us all. I care because InterVarsity is engaged in a parallel struggle. Over the past 18 months, our status as a recognized student organization has been challenged on 41 campuses.

Reasons for Concern
I’m upset because the mandate compels a religious community to act contrarily to its understanding of Scripture. In doing so, it violates a long-held American social contract that — for the most part — allows such communities to practice beliefs that are outside the cultural mainstream. In my dark moments, I fear that we are entering an era where the majority will increasingly impose its views upon beliefs it regards as backward.

I’m upset because the mandate is an anathema to practicing Catholics worldwide, a direct contradiction of Catholic teaching. Many dioceses are moving towards civil disobedience. Arizona Bishop Thomas Olmsted writes:

“Unless the rule is overturned, we will be compelled to either violate our consciences, or to drop health coverage for our employees (and suffer the penalties for doing so). We cannot — we will not — comply with this unjust law.”

I’m upset because of a cultural impulse to narrowly limit faith to matters of preaching, communion and baptism. Before drafting this essay, I read numerous writers who support the health care mandate. A common underlying assumption seems to be that religion is tolerable so long as it is segmented, privatized and outside the public realm. As a believer in the lordship of Jesus, I simply cannot accept this point of view.

Reasons for Hope
In mid-January, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously recognized the rights of religious groups to hire people of faith. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote:

“The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important, but so, too, is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith and carry out their mission.”

In recognizing the dynamic contribution that religious pluralism brings to society as a whole, the court’s opinion serves as a welcome counterpoint to the contraception mandate. In the interface between culture and faith, these two decisions represent wildly divergent trajectories.

Call to Action
As InterVarsity students, faculty, and staff, what role should we play in influencing this trajectory?

Let us stand in solidarity with our Catholic friends on the health care mandate. I urge you to contact your elected representatives and to ask your pastors to speak out.

Let us be winsomely courageous as we face our own religious liberty challenges on multiple campuses. We would do well to emulate our students, faculty and staff at Vanderbilt University. Recently placed on probationary status, our chapters are engaging the administration on a new policy that prohibits the selection of leaders on the basis of faith.

Let us continue to pray, sharpen our minds, share the Gospel, develop mature disciples, love our adversaries, care for the poor and be a voice of grace and truth in the public square. Simply put, our duty is to be faithful followers of Jesus. By doing so, his glory, power and redemption will impact culture in ways we cannot foresee.

Alec D. Hill is President and Chief Executive Officer of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA®. Prior to joining Intervarsity in 2001, Alec was Dean of the School of Business and Economics at Seattle Pacific University and a professor of law and ethics at the university. He is the author of Just Business: Christian Ethics in the Marketplace.

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