.- A dissenting Catholic group believes that the First Amendment protection of religious freedom applies to personal decisions but does not allow people to apply their beliefs to every area of their lives.
Sara Hutchinson, domestic program director of Catholics for Choice, explained that religious freedom protects "me acting in my own faith for my own life" but does not extend to actions in other areas of life, such as business decisions about company policies and health insurance plans.
"Our faith charges us to respect religious pluralism and religious freedom," said Hutchinson. This means "respecting an individual's right to follow his or her own conscience and religious beliefs and practices as well as in moral decisions."
But while this constitutional freedom covers "personal beliefs" and private decisions made as "an individual," rights of conscience are forfeited when "acting as an employer," she argued.
Business owners making decisions about policies and health care contracts "are actually serving as an institution" and therefore cannot apply the teachings of their faith to such decisions, she said.
Hutchinson spoke as part of a panel on religious freedom at the Holiday Inn Charlotte Center City in Charlotte, N.C.
The Sept. 4 event took place during the Democratic National Convention but was not an official convention event. It drew about six attendees.
Panel speakers argued that Americans' religious freedom will be severely restricted if they cannot get birth control for free.
They slammed those who oppose a federal mandate requiring employers to offer health insurance covering contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs free of charge.
Critics of the mandate, including leaders of the Catholic Church and other faiths, have voiced strong concerns that the regulation violates the religious liberty of employers who hold sincere moral objections to such coverage.
Hutchinson criticized "the Vatican and the bishops" and warned of a devious campaign by Church leaders to amass power and suppress dissenters.
"Under the guise of religious liberty, the bishops want to rewrite the rules on health care, employment, adoptions, marriage and more, so that they can deny civil rights for anyone who disagrees with them," she charged.
Hutchinson argued that this campaign is "a real threat" to true religious liberty, which requires employers to offer free coverage of contraception and abortion regardless of their views, and then leaves it up to the "individual conscience" whether or not use such coverage.
Catholics for Choice and its partner organizations are working to "stand strong against the bishops and their allies," who threaten "true religious freedom" with their "false cries of religious liberty," she said.
Bishop Tonyia Rawls, a lesbian and minister at the Freedom Center for Social Justice in Charlotte, also spoke at the religious freedom discussion. Rawls emphasized the importance of fighting for the "right to choose" and of supporting efforts to redefine marriage.
Rev. Harry Knox, president and CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, said that "religious liberty is a very complex subject" but agreed that such freedom does not extend to employers who wish to follow the tenets of their faith in the health coverage they offer.
Knox, a homosexual advocate who was appointed by President Obama to the President’s Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, said that he worked in this role to ensure that faith-based organizations using tax money to serve those in need would not be permitted to do so in rooms with religious symbols.
People of different faiths or no faith could be "harmed" by such an environment, he said, and religious organizations such as hospitals and food banks should therefore have to cover or remove crucifixes, religious pictures and other faith symbols to make the room "neutral."
On the topic of abortion, Knox emphasized the importance of "empowering the person that you're counseling" and said that the role of a pastor is largely "to be quiet" and let individuals make their own decisions.
No individual or institution can tell other people "what is right for them," he said, adding that these moral discussions are "fundamentally a matter of perspective."
For the Church to suggest that its moral teaching is based in objective and unchanging truth is "the worst kind of hubris" and displeases God, he argued.
The faithful must fight against religious groups seeking to "impose their set of values on everybody else," Knox stressed, because "when that happens, people get hurt."