Over the last few weeks the news has been full of controversy about the intersection between religion and government. The catalyst was a ruling regarding medial insurance coverage, but since then the 'debate' has grown to a broader concern of government interfering in individuals religious practices.
I would never claim that this is a simple issue, but I also don't believe that there is a systematic attack or war on religion by government, as claimed by Newt Gingrich among others..
Of course there is reason to fear such an attack. History is filled with examples of governments outlawing and attacking religion. Mexico, the Soviet Union and China are good examples.
But our government has religious freedom guaranteed in the constitution, along with a requirement in the first amendment that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..." And this isn't a hollow promise as demonstrated by numerous lawsuits and court rulings.
The problem is that it's not always clear how to accomplish these two requirements. There's a lot of grey between the black and white, so this debate will continue indefinitely. Unfortunately, at least the public debate seems rarely to be conducted as a respectful conversation.
From the left the goal sometimes seems to be a desire to completely exclude religion, even though the great majority of citizens are religious. On the other hand, the religious arguments appear to be more a desire to protect or promote a particular religion or even belief.
For instance, last year's demand to prevent the creation of an Islamic community center in New York City would seem to be a clear violation of the first amendment. And within the Christian community politicians can be very selective when quoting religious arguments. For an example take a look at an article by Juan Cole titled "Top 10 Catholic Teachings Santorum Rejects while Obsessing About Birth Control".
To me the fundamental issue is that religion, by it's nature, is faith based and therefore not subject to any objective test for legitimacy. This means that I'm free to invent any religion I please and then claim protection from the first amendment. At some point the public good will trump individual belief and the result will be an incursion by government. Recent examples include Warren Jeffs conviction for statutory rape or the murder conviction of Muzzammil Hassan.
So what about the specific issue of insurance, birth control, and religious institutions? I have no idea what the 'correct' solution is, but I doubt that the issue is simple or that there's an obvious fix that would satisfy everyone. I just wish that the public debate would consist of reasoned arguments rather than attacks on individuals or sensational claims.