03/29/2012 05:20 pm ET Updated May 29, 2012

Engaging the Birth Control Question: Revitalizing our Discourse, Protecting our Freedom

The highly-debated birth control mandate, under which religiously-affiliated institutions like hospitals and universities may have to provide birth control coverage in employee health plans, has drawn attention and responses from religious and non-religious leaders alike. This issue reveals the need for more critical conversations within religious institutions and points to a deeper concern at hand -- the limitations and boundaries of religious freedom in a changing American cultural and societal landscape.

While I, as a young Catholic, agree that the Catholic conversation around birth control, sexuality and contraceptives (among other issues) has stagnated and does not fully address changing current realities, I also agree with Catholic and other religious leaders who say that this mandate encroaches on the religious freedoms of Catholics and of other faith communities who may hold similar views.

Diverse voices from all camps have come out against this proposed mandate. The issue at hand is not healthcare policy, but the government's incursion into the sphere of religious life, the division of religious communities and institutions, and declaring what is, or is not, "religious enough" in relation to secular policies. Healthcare reform is needed, but are we willing, in the process, to sacrifice religious freedoms and ignore the moral objections of religious communities?

This mandate has moved to the center of nationwide concern due to the possibilities it opens up regarding the involvement of secular institutions in questions of religious identity. A similar blurring of divisions and authority can be noted in a recent controversy at Manhattan College in New York and St. Xavier University in Chicago, in which the National Labor Relations Board ruled these institutions were not sufficiently religious to fall outside of the agency's jurisdiction.

While the issues of labor laws and the complex reality of the state-federal political relationship need to be navigated responsibly, these actions reveal a growing involvement of secular institutions and rulings in religious affairs. This affects not only Catholics, but all religious communities in the United States. If these mandates and rulings succeed and set precedent, what are possible further consequences? How far can the government go in setting boundaries on religious identity?

These threats to religious freedom have also come from elsewhere, most recently in the news of the undercover NYPD investigation of Muslims in New York. All of these developments point to the need for our discourse to evolve. Just because we as a nation have struggled with questions of religious freedom and religious pluralism and identity for over two centuries does not mean that we have come close to fully engaging the reality of pluralism, secularism, and democracy. As a society, we are uncomfortable with questions of religion and pluralism, and we are afraid to challenge established, constructed boundaries. We must find ways to critically address issues of religious freedom in an evolving world. Young leaders must be central in encouraging this societal shift.

The interfaith youth movement offers a vehicle for this changing discourse. At DePaul University, the largest Catholic university in the United States, we have provided state-mandated birth control options for students and staff for years, but we have also carved out critical spaces in and out of the classroom to have engaging, respectful conversations on these issues. In growing together in these questions, we are committed to common action for the common good, and religious freedom is a necessary component of this communal welfare.

The interfaith youth movement and organizations like Religious Freedom USA and Interfaith Youth Core are working to promote new spaces for this discourse on issues of religious freedom, and these conversations must continually move forward. Young leaders, religious and non-religious, must work together to catalyze change that is needed in our society and discourse.

Faith communities must address these critical questions -- contraception and birth control, interfaith and intrafaith relations, LGBTQ inclusiveness, among others -- in succeeding years and decades, but secular incursion into these spheres and conversations is not the way to achieve these shifts. We must accept this as a call to action, a call to revitalize the conversations in our own communities and work together to promote positive, holistic change in our world. Faith communities must begin to creatively and critically address these issues, and only then can we responsibly engage the pressing questions that demand our reflection and attention.