Coming on the heels of the Obama administration’s arguing against the constitutional precedent of the ministerial exception in the recent Hosana-Tabor case, in which the Court unanimously upheld the right of religious institutions to decide for themselves who qualifies as a minister, a new mandate requires religious institutions to provide its employees with all FDA-approved methods of contraceptives, including birth control, abortifacients such as the morning-after pill, abortions and sterilizations. The New York Times and other members of the secularist movement have cheered these hostile encroachments by the government on the consciences and rights of religious institutions and individuals at every opportunity.
The new contraceptive mandate and the administration’s argument against the ministerial exception are but two examples of continued affronts to religious liberty, however. Prior to Hosana-Tabor, top officials at the Department of Health and Human Services overruled DHHS recommendations to renew a grant to Catholic Charities USA to aid sex-trafficking victims over issues with the Catholic Church’s position on abortion and contraception. Career employees at DHHS tried to preserve the grant, telling Obama appointees that the program was one of the most effective in the world, but were overruled due to the political considerations of the administration.
Soon after the administration lost its battle to strip religious institutions of autonomy in hiring decisions, on January 20, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced new rules mandating coverage of contraception, abortions, and sterilization free of charge under the new Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, otherwise known as ObamaCare.
Since releasing the preliminary rule last year, religious leaders around the country have expressed concern and pleaded with the administration to expand the rule’s narrow religious exemption. Timothy Cardinal Dolan, chairman of the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, attended a reportedly less-than-cordial meeting with President Obama, in which he expressed fear that the new rules would violate Catholic conscience rights and more broadly, the freedom of religion clause of the first amendment. Dolan pleaded with the president to no avail. Announcing the new rule, Secretary Sebelius said,
“I believe this proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services. The administration remains fully committed to its partnerships with faith-based organizations, which promote healthy communities and serve the common good. And this final rule will have no impact on the protections that existing conscience laws and regulations give to health-care providers.”
While the administration fully intends to violate the religious rights of the masses, the administration did give nonprofit religious institutions until 2013 to accommodate the new rule. To this Dolan replied, “so what you’re saying is that we have a year to figure out how to violate our conscience?” Evidently, yes.
While Sebelius expressed confidence that existing conscience laws would not be impacted, the criteria for qualifying for an exemption as a “religious employer for the new mandate are as follows:
1. The “inculcation of religious values” is “its purpose.”
2. It “primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets.”
3. “It primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets.”
4. It is a non-profit organization under sections of the code that “refer to churches, their integrated auxiliaries, and conventions or associations, as well as to the exclusively religious activities of any religious order.”
Despite the administrations flimsy assurances that the mandate is not intrusive, the USCCB-as well as many other religious institutions who serve people from all backgrounds- say the new rules force them to violate core teachings in order to satisfy the whims of the administration’s secularist base. For instance, an order of nuns would not be required to provide insurance covering contraception and abortion, but a school, university or hospital run by the Order in question would be compelled to violate their religious beliefs, as Raleigh Bishop Michael Burbidge and many other Bishops have stated. Catholic Charities, one of the largest social services providers in the world, running soup kitchens, shelters, and providing numerous other human services in cities all across the country, would be forced to pay for procedures to which they are opposed as well. Those found in violation of the mandate could be subject to a fine of $100 per day, per employee. In fact, according to the National Catholic Reporter, the University of Notre Dame faces a decision over whether to comply with the new mandate or face a $10 million fine.
After President Obama campaigned as a figure of unity and spoke of the values of religious freedom both at Notre Dame and on several other occasions, it is clear that despite overtures towards religious liberty, his real allegiance lies with the radical pro-choice activists who make up the base of his supporters. Secretary Sebelius may claim the mandate has no bearing on “freedom of worship”, but the “freedom of worship” and freedom of religion are not the same thing. As Wesley J. Smith writes at National Review,
“The former means that one may believe whatever one wants and worship privately without interference, whereas the latter allows one freedom to live in the world at large consistent with one’s faith tenets, even if they are not endorsed by the state.”
Not only does the administration plan to regulate which religious beliefs are acceptable, they also plan to make religious institutions speak for the pro-choice agenda of government. As Secretary Sebelius states,
“We intend to require employers that do not offer coverage of contraceptive services to provide notice to employees, which will also state that contraceptive services are available at sites such as community health centers, public clinics, and hospitals with income-based support.”
In other words, the mandate would require those who qualify for the narrowly-tailored exception to refer employees to contraceptive services in the community. The new HHS rules are clearly unconstitutional, and the USCCB, joining dozens of colleges, dioceses and businesses in a suit against Secretary Sebelius have precedent on their side, embodied in precedent upholding the religious liberties of individuals and associations against the encroachments of the government, such as West Virginia v. Barnette (1943). But what does the Constitution matter anyway? Clearly it was not being followed in the drafting of this mandate.
In another sad turn of events, students at Fordham University, a Catholic university, are protesting against its policy of not dispensing birth control on campus. Students at Fordham are demanding “affordable” (i.e. subsidized) contraceptives as well, and staged an off-campus clinic where students could get contraceptives and other reproductive services not offered on campus. Fordham, again a Catholic institution, may be changing it’s policy in light of the new HHS rules.
The new mandate represents the continuation of an assault on religious institutions, which has been ongoing by members of the secular elite for decades. For example, since the cause of gay marriage has arrived on the scene in recent years, faith-based adoption agencies such as Catholic Charities, a longstanding provider of care for children, have been forced to comply with state rulings directing them to place children with same-sex couples, or cease all adoption operations. Catholic Charities has stopped its adoption operations in Illinois, Massachusetts, and is likely to do so in New York. Regardless of one’s stand on same-sex “marriage,” forcing religious institutions to comply with secular rules is a violation of the constitutionally-guaranteed free exercise of religion. All individual rights must be respected, but our secularist politicians fail to balance the scale so that the rights of institutions with opposing, faith-based viewpoints are respected as well.
Inasmuch as the Catholic Church is an institution, extending beyond the sanctuary in service to mankind through education, health care, and charity, it has been the target of attacks in recent years by those who seek to silence truth, faith and reason. While the Obama administration may think it is scoring a victory, it has picked a fight with one of the oldest institution in the world, and has united conservative and progressive Catholics alike in opposition to government overstepping its bounds. Therefore, as First Things editor R. R. Reno writes, Catholics and all believers must stand strong for our first, most cherished freedom of religion, up to and including civil disobedience.
Many pick fights with Rome…none have won.