In 2012, Georgetown was launched into the center of the heated debate surrounding the HHS mandate when Sandra Fluke, a student at Georgetown Law, gave her infamous testimony regarding birth control access at universities. On a campus where one of the most popular majors is Government, and where most students have interned on the Hill, Fluke’s words obviously gained substantial traction.
Yet even as my classmates discussed the seeming injustice of a religious organization being able to tell a woman what medicine she could take, many of them seemed not to question the injustice of a government being able to enforce a law telling a religious organization to fund medical procedures or provide medical treatments that the organization’s religion stated to be morally evil. In the explosion of “rights talk” during the past decade, many of my peers have come to view the right to religious freedom, that very right which was our nation’s “First Freedom” as nothing more than religious entities seeking to impose their views on others.
This perception is not only grievously erroneous, but tremendously damaging to the very foundations upon which our university was founded. Georgetown University’s motto is Utraque Unum, meaning “Both and One.” It signifies the union of faith and reason, the grace of revelation joined with the complexities of the human intellect. As the oldest Catholic university in the United States, Georgetown has long been the premier example of the relationship between religion and scholarship.
In my three years on the Hilltop, I have seen this duality still present in many ways, whether through classroom discussions on St. Thomas Aquinas and Just War Theory, or in late night discussions with friends, or even during conversations with Jesuits, which have lasted long past the end of a lecture. However, as religious discussion becomes increasingly deemed as inherently “unreasonable,” and as religious institutions are penalized for wishing to maintain their beliefs, I fear that this natural alliance of faith and reason will no longer be allowed to thrive, or even to exist.
Georgetown’s battle to hold fast to its religious ties is one that is being fought by many religiously affiliated universities who run the risk of alienating either students or alumni by stepping too far in one direction or another. The crux of the issue is a dynamic tension between what religious freedom actually is. For too many students, religious freedom means the ability of organizations and communities to bypass government restrictions. However, religious freedom was intended to prevent the tyranny of one moral framework over another by allowing the proliferation of all.
Just as the Founding Fathers saw the civic engagement bred by such lively religious discussion to be the lifeblood of a republic, so it is also critical for the flourishing of a university. Utruque Unum does not mean Georgetown can forcibly coerce its students to convert to Catholicism, but it does mean that the University can hold itself to the doctrine of its faith without the interference of the government. To undermine this right for a university to maintain its religious identity would be far more detrimental than denying someone access to contraception, it would be to push religion even further from the public sphere and to prevent a university from defending the very truth claims upon which it is based.
Cornerstone is the blog of the Religious Freedom Project (RFP) at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. The Cornerstone blog is the only online platform devoted exclusively to scholarly debate about the meaning and reach of religious liberty. Read more.