A law professor at George Mason University believes that current threats to religious freedom are intrinsically connected to the modern understanding that “sexual freedom is about shaping yourself.”
Helen Alvaré, who has formerly worked with the U.S. bishops' pro-life office, spoke on May 10 at the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C. She observed that many modern threats to religious freedom “are coming by way of a newly strong government position on human sexuality.”
This view holds that sex is unrelated to procreation or the union of man and woman, but is simply about “expressing oneself” and forming one’s identity through various sexual acts, she explained.
Alvaré traced this understanding of sexuality through court decisions in the last 50 years.
In 1965, the Supreme ruled in Griswold v. Connecticut that the Constitution implicitly protects the “right to marital privacy” and that married couples therefore have a right to contraception. At this point, Alvaré observed, the union of the married couple was still intact in the understanding of sex.
By 1992, however, the court upheld the “right” to abortion by describing sexual decisions as a means of shaping one’s identity, she said.
In its Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision, the plurality opinion affirmed “the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
At this point, Alvaré said, sex has been “completely disconnected from the other person” and is solely about expressing oneself and building identity.
This view is reflected today, she explained, pointing to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S., which distributes information to young people encouraging them to explore and express themselves in different sexual ways.
This disconnected idea of sexual expression as an individual right can also be seen in a careful reading of the court cases supporting a redefinition of marriage, Alvaré added. In these court opinions, “same-sex marriage is not about the two people in the marriage. It’s about the individual expressing themself sexually.”
It is in this context that the Obama administration’s contraception mandate comes into being, with “no hesitation in divorcing sex from everything” that it physically, emotionally and spiritually means, she continued.
The mandate has been heavily criticized as a major threat to religious freedom because it will require employers to offer health insurance plans that cover contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs, even if doing so violates their religious beliefs.
Alvaré views the mandate as a “culmination” of a view of sexuality that has become more and more disconnected from marriage, procreation and the natural unity of man and woman.
She explained that this way of thinking began with the argument that taking the babies out of sex would allow couples to flourish, women to escape poverty and children to avoid being raised in bad situations.
But this has changed drastically, in a way that is evident by the “models of freedom” used to defend the contraception mandate, she said.
Rather than a woman facing poverty or a married couple overwhelmed by a dozen kids, the iconic figures in the sexual freedom debate today are unmarried, highly educated, and fairly well-off financially.
She pointed to Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown University law student who has become a leading figure in the push for free birth control.
These women are not talking about marriage, poverty or the wellbeing of children, Alvaré observed. Rather, they are simply saying that they want a regular sex life with a constant supply of contraception, and they want someone else to pay for it.
This “right to a commitment-free, child-free sexual experience” has become so elevated that no religious conscience is permitted to object to it, she said, explaining that when disconnected sexual expression becomes a basic and fundamental right, religious liberty suffers.
This can be seen today, as Catholic individuals and institutions are told that they shouldn’t “even be able to have a critical stance” on issues such as contraception, she said.
She also observed that proponents of the mandate are making claims of a “war on women” and using “language of discrimination,” as if religious individual seeking to follow their conscience were violent members of the Ku Klux Klan, who should not have a voice in the public square.
The Catholic Church’s idea of sexuality as being connected to marriage and new life is “absolutely contrary” to the modern understanding, Alvaré explained.
As Catholics step up to defend religious freedom, she noted, they also have a chance to help change the way that human sexuality is viewed.
“I really see this time as an opportunity,” she said.