The importance of protecting religious freedom

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Have we really been arguing about contraceptives and reproductive rights for the past few months here in Washington, D.C.? To the casual observer of politics, it certainly looks that way. But the truth is, religious freedom, not contraceptives, is at the heart of this most contentious debate.

Religious freedom is our constitutionally protected right to practice a religion of our choosing. In other words, the government cannot force us to adopt a certain religion or compel us to do things that run counter to our faith. What we now take for granted was nothing short of revolutionary in a world where it was common practice for the state to have an official religion. This sort of religious persecution is what compelled America’s earliest immigrants to leave Europe for North America seeking refuge. In short, religious freedom runs at the heart of the American experiment.

Why the history lesson? Religious freedom is under attack, in part due to a recent decision by the White House to compel religious organizations to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives under the president’s health care law, also known as Obamacare. The White House later issued an “accommodation” by keeping the costs of contraception from being incurred by religious institutions that have a moral opposition to it. But employees of religious institutions can continue to ask for contraception from their employers, making this an accommodation in name only.

In the president’s view, there is nothing wrong with asking religious institutions to hold their nose and do something that flouts their faith, in order to comply with the most honorable pursuit of providing Americans with health care insurance. For the president and many others in Congress, our faith is a strictly personal proposition with no place in the public square.

Proponents of this philosophy frequently cite a letter written by Thomas Jefferson as proof that our country is one with a clear separation between church and state.  To them, a letter supersedes the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing our constitutionally protected religious freedoms.  This is a poor reading of our country’s founding principles on religion, and religious freedom.

For many of us immigrants from Latin America, faith isn’t limited to Sundays. We know that religion is deeply intertwined with our culture. This is precisely why this discussion on religious freedom and the government’s ability to compel a religious organization to do something that runs counter their teachings is of critical significance.

And even if we don’t subscribe to any particular faith, we must ask ourselves if we are OK allowing the government to trample over a 200-year-old document protecting religious freedom. What then, if the next president decides to limit the freedom of the press or freedom of speech?

Freedom, not contraceptives, is at stake in this most contentious of debates.

You can follow Israel on Twitter: @IzzyOrtega

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