06/01/2016 12:52 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2017

The Spirit of Thomas Becket Is Alive, And That's Bad News

It's not often that 800-year-old bones make the news. But the recent temporary transfer of a supposed bone fragment of Thomas Becket from Hungary to England received widespread attention. This was due in part to the continuing highly favorable reputation that Becket enjoys. He is, of course, venerated as a saint by Catholics, but many who are not Catholic admire him because he is regarded as a martyr for religious freedom.

This is unfortunate because this reputation is wholly undeserved. Becket did not champion religious freedom. Instead, he intransigently insisted on special privileges for the religious, including immunity from the law.

If this were merely a matter of demolishing the myths that surround someone who's been dead for eight centuries, it might be a topic of interest only to those with a passion for history. But the myth of Becket continues to animate many today, including those who still maintain that religious institutions and religious individuals should not be subject to the same laws as others.

First, let's get the history right. What was the nub of the dispute between Henry II and Becket? Henry--who is rightly considered a ruler who did much to reform the English legal system, laying the foundation for English common law--wanted clergy accused of serious crimes tried in secular courts. Becket insisted that clergy be tried only in ecclesiastical courts. These courts were ineffective and lax, allowing many serious offenders to escape punishment. Church discipline was as meaningless for clerical murderers and thieves in the 12th century as it has been for clerical sexual predators in our times. It's worth noting, by the way, that as much as one-sixth of the male population in England could claim "the benefit of clergy."

Becket's defense of special privileges for clergy didn't justify his subsequent murder, of course, but neither should his murder transform him into someone who should be honored for his advocacy of religious freedom. He didn't advocate religious freedom; he obstinately argued for immunity from the law for the church and its clergy.

The blurring of the distinction between true religious freedom and special privileges for the religious has, unfortunately, affected current public policy debates. In the last few years, not a day goes by when someone isn't invoking religious liberty when they really mean religious privilege. From Kim Davis's alleged martyrdom to the supposed oppression visited on the Little Sisters of the Poor, from the anguished wails of those businesses asked to treat gays and lesbians like any other customers to religiously motivated pleas for sex-segregated swimming pools, the cry of "religious liberty" has been used to mask demands for religious privilege--for exemptions from the laws and regulations that apply to everyone else.

Religious freedom is an important freedom. Everyone should be free to come to their own conclusions about God or gods and to express those beliefs openly without fear of retribution by the state. Similarly, no one should be forced to do something to their own bodies that violates their religious beliefs. For example, no one should be forced to marry someone of the same sex (or the opposite sex) or take contraception or eat pork nor should they be compelled to express support for policies they oppose.

But religious freedom does not encompass the right to impose burdens on others or create significant obstacles to others' exercise of their freedom. Kim Davis could voice opposition to same-sex marriage to her heart's content, but she had no right to obstruct the legal marriages of others, all the while trying to retain her government post.

The Little Sisters of the Poor certainly don't have to take contraception, nor do they have to remain silent about what they perceive as the evils of contraception. Nor do they have to pay for the contraception used by others. But the notion that the government can't ask them to submit a form confirming their desire to be exempt from a government-mandated health care program expands the concept of religious freedom beyond recognition. The Little Sisters of the Poor were not trying to obtain religious freedom--which they already had--but instead were trying to exempt themselves from the ordinary responsibilities of civil society, while obstructing their employees' access to contraception.

And no one should be able to prevent half the population from enjoying public swimming pools because of their religiously motivated desire for sex-segregated pools.

The spirit of Thomas Becket is alive and well, even if his bones are not. And that's troubling for all those who value genuine religious freedom, but don't think religion should be used as an excuse for evading the law and imposing burdens on others.