With the passage of Indiana’s Religious Freedom and Restoration Act and as similar laws begin to pop-up all over the country, political conservatives are counting this as a great victory. But there is a key aspect of these laws that need to be examined; namely the condition that is always attached to it—“a compelling state interest.” In a society where the State is becoming Leviathan more each day, there can be great peril in challenging “state interest.” By examining this phrase through the lens of Catholic Social Teaching, we may be able to shed light on where the proper boundaries of state interest are and what exactly constitutes a “compelling” interest.
One of the fruits of the Second Vatican Council was the manner in which the Council Fathers applied the Church’s unchanging social principles to the modern world. One area in particular they looked at was the purpose of the state: “(T)he political community exists, consequently, for the sake of the common good, in which it finds its full justification and significance, and the source of its inherent legitimacy” (Gaudium et Spes, 74).
For many, this comes as a surprise—that the State is not an end in itself. It only exists to serve a specific purpose and that is to promote and protect the common good. The common good then governs what constitutes the state’s “interest”. The State ought only to be concerned with the common good and nothing else.
In its broadest sense the common good is “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 164). The Catechism points to three elements of the common good which help to balance the good of the individual with the good of the community. The common good, first and foremost, must recognize the dignity of the person. This means creating societal “conditions for the exercise of the natural freedoms indispensable for the development of the human vocation, such as ‘the right to act according to a sound norm of conscience and to safeguard. . . privacy, and rightful freedom also in matters of religion.’”(CCC 1907). Second, the common good requires “the social well-being and development of the group itself” (CCC 1908). However, this must never be done at the expense of the dignity of the person. Finally, the common good requires an atmosphere of peace founded upon a just order in which the mutual fulfillment of members may occur.
This perennial understanding of the common good needs to be preached again today. The Church holds a gem in her social teaching, especially on the common good. Much of western political thought is built upon the assumption that man is not by nature a social being but instead enters into a social contract in order to have his needs met. This is contrary to not only the classical understanding of man but also the Christian understanding of man made in the image and likeness of God, Who is a society unto Himself. The rugged individualist understanding of man reduces the common good to simply the sum of individual goods. What emerges is a sort of utilitarian understanding of the common good as the “greatest good for the greatest number.” “Compelling interests” of the State are only determined based on how many individuals like a given law. Whether the good that a law protects is a true good is inconsequential. But the Church would say that social goods, if they are truly common goods, ought to flow back over the individual so that even the individual who must sacrifice something shares in the goods from the sacrifice. Because each man shares in the common good it is considered a higher good than individual goods.
Once a proper understanding of the common good is in place, it can be applied to the question of religious liberty. In particular there should be a special emphasis on the principle that one might have to forego an individual good for the sake of the higher, common good. For the sake of the common good, each person must forego the good of not being annoyed, inconvenienced or even persuaded about certain truth claims by religious believers and the manner in which they discharge their beliefs . Even those they deem false or even find ridiculous. Why is this so? Because they too share in the good of religious freedom and freedom of conscience. They are protected from coercion and acting contrary to their own conscience. Otherwise we all end of beholden to the sway of public opinion and trapped in the Orwellian dilemma where some animals are more equal than others.
Applying this to the situation in Indiana we can begin to see why this law is so important. Protecting someone’s duty to act in accord with their conscience (even if it is religiously formed) protects everybody. First, I would simply ask, what kind of a society would we have if people were regularly encouraged and even forced to act contrary to their conscience? I suspect that it would be a society that would need many laws (since the law would be the only dictate of what is right and wrong) and would need many more police (and grow to hate them) and lawyers (because it would be so litigious). I sure hope that never happens here.
From this flows the second point. If we do not clearly articulate what this is about we will miss the connection to the common good. It is not about not selling a product to a particular kind of person. It is about not selling a product to someone because one objects to the way in which the product is going to be used. A vendor has a moral obligation to make sure that the products and services he sells are going to be used in the manner that is not harmful. It is no different than not selling 50 bags of fertilizer to a Muslim because he tells you he is planning on making a bomb. Being a Muslim has nothing to do with the refusal. The refusal has to do with what he intends to use the product for. The bakers are not selling cakes for gay weddings not because the people are gay, but because they told the bakers what they will be used for (in asking for it to be decorated with certain words) and they object on moral grounds. This same liberty would protect the gay baker from having to sell a decorated cake to the Gary Gay-Haters Club and the feminist from baking a cake decorated with a naked woman for the Greater Indianapolis Misogynist’s Club. In each of these cases no civil law is being broken, but each would have a valid objection to performing a service they find morally objectionable. The State in turn has the obligation that when this liberty is threatened to make laws to protect it.
If you are interested in reading more about the State’s role with respect to making laws for things contrary to the natural law then you can read this article I wrote in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review a few years ago called Contraception and Public Policy.