One tradition of religious liberty contends that freedom of conscience is protected and advanced by the autonomy of religious groups. In this view, government should honor an institutional pluralism — the ability of people to associate, live and act in accordance with their religious beliefs, limited only by the clear requirements of public order. So Roger Williams welcomed Catholics and Quakers to the Rhode Island colony, arguing that a “Church or company of worshippers (whether true or false) . . . may dissent, divide, breake into Schismes and Factions, sue and implead each other at the Law, yea wholly breake up and dissolve into pieces and nothing, and yet the peace of the Citie not be in the least measure impaired or disturbed.”
There is another form of modern liberalism that defines freedom of conscience in purely personal terms. Only the individual and the state are real, at least when it comes to the law. And the state must often intervene to protect the individual from the oppression of illiberal social institutions, particularly religious ones.
This is the guiding philosophy of the American Civil Liberties Union. But as Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs, pointed out to me, this approach has roots in the Anglo American tradition of political philosophy. John Locke’s “Letter Concerning Toleration” urges legal respect for individual conscience because “everyone is orthodox to himself.” But Locke offered no tolerance for the institution of the Catholic Church: “That Church can have no right to be tolerated by the magistrate which is constituted upon such a bottom that all those who enter into it do thereby ipso facto deliver themselves up to the protection and service of another prince.” In Locke’s view, Catholics can worship as they wish as individuals, but their institution is a danger to the liberal order.
In American history, the treatment of the Catholic Church has often been the measure of institutional religious tolerance. It is amazing how Lockean (unconsciously, one assumes) recent actions by the Obama administration have been. Catholics individuals are free to worship. Catholic institutions must be forced to reflect liberal ideals and values.