Philadelphia Freedom

When the Reverend Jerry Falwell passed away recently we were told that his greatest sin was blurring the lines of separation between church and state, of “shoving” his personal faith and values down the throats of everyone else.

While Falwell certainly had his faults, the reality is that he and his Moral Majority were a reaction, a response to what they perceived as an assault on the values they held dear, a consequence of their absence in politics. Falwell and his supporters saw what happened when they politely did as they were told by secularists, when they put their tails between their legs and whimpered out of the public square: they ceded the culture to secularists, many of whom were contemptuous of their views.

In truth, Falwell and his Moral Majority were tired of having the values of secularists shoved down their throat.

Why mention this now? Because yet another example of this aggressive secularism occurred in recent weeks in Philadelphia, where secular values were again thrust upon religious-minded citizens who, in turn, were expected to politely express their misgivings in private.

On June 8, by a vote of 9-8, the Philadelphia City Council took an extraordinary step, approving a resolution declaring Philadelphia a “pro-choice city.”

The resolution, sponsored by Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, and drafted with the assistance of Planned Parenthood, declared the city an “advocate for the advancement of women’s rights and equality, and in particular women’s reproductive rights and freedom.” The resolution “officially” expressed the city’s “support for a woman’s right to choose.”

The gesture contradicted a much more eloquent and certainly longer-lasting resolution affirmed by wiser legislators in the city two centuries ago: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” That word “life” also gets prominent billing in the U.S. Constitution, the 14th Amendment of which states, “nor shall any State deprive any person of life.”

Thankfully, many Philadelphians remain true to those timeless principles articulated in their historic city. Indeed, Councilwoman Brown acknowledged that many residents would not describe themselves as pro-choice—but considered that fact immaterial to the larger cause.

So, it was done. “Now Phila is officially ‘pro-choice,’” proclaimed the headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer the next day.

This time, however, the puppies didn’t saunter home after a smack on the backside. They barked. They fought back.

Cardinal Justin Rigali, the Philadelphia archbishop who became the public face of opposition to the resolution, immediately issued a statement denouncing the “divisive and erroneous label” that the council had “forced upon” citizens. “I reject the resolution,” said Rigali. “It unfairly saddles those who support life at all stages with this shameful label.” He added, “Everyone deserves to be born and live.”

Rigali linked the resolution to the city’s well-known struggle to protect life of late, as it sets the national pace for homicide. “Philadelphia is experiencing homicide at a record rate,” noted the cardinal. “Now is not the time to affirm the false choice of procured abortion.”

This was an interesting comparison. Rigali was thinking that perhaps Councilwoman Brown might in retrospect judge her action at least a poor PR move. Not at all. She had the city’s image in mind when she sponsored the resolution: “At the end of the day, we decide what we want the city to look like and be about,” said Brown in urging her colleagues to support her action.

They did just that, narrowly passing the resolution, with even council’s preponderance of pro-choicers ambivalent, understanding that it was unnecessary to wade into such a controversial issue completely unrelated to its jurisdiction. But then they did something else, something unexpected: they reconsidered and reversed their position.

On June 14, city council rescinded its proclamation by a vote of 13-4. Councilman Jim Kenney, a pro-choicer who ultimately switched his vote, confessed that he was disappointed with himself for not abstaining previously: “It’s not something I think we should have forced on the public at large.”

Even Councilwoman Brown seemed penitent, “Regret is too strong a word,” she conceded. “I have learned as an enlightened pro-choice advocate that there may have been other ways to make my position known.” Of course, Brown’s repentance had its limits: It was not enough to change her vote.

Naturally, Planned Parenthood was angry. Dayle Steinberg, president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania, perceived a blow against a broad spectrum of Philadelphia freedoms: “It’s unfortunate that there couldn’t be an agreement to support the rights of women and families in Philadelphia.”

For Planned Parenthood and Councilwoman Brown, it was not enough that Philadelphia’s women already have the right to legalized abortion; rather, the entire city needed to go officially on the record as “pro-choice.” As for those residents with different values?—too bad.

Ultimately, real rights, genuine freedom, the first of all freedoms—the right to life—triumphed in Philadelphia, shining through in a declaration of true independence, one to keep in mind this week as the city and the nation, on July 4, celebrates and affirms those eternal, unalienable rights resolved in that part of the world 231 years ago.