This was an extraordinary provocation.
On the day after Pope Benedict warned the church in America about unprecedented political and cultural threats to religious freedom, the Obama adminstration issued a mandate that will force religious institutions to comply with health care rules profoundly against their fundamental moral beliefs.
The ACLJ was already preparing briefs for the Supreme Court hearing on the Obama healthcare legislation, based on the individual mandate that required citizens to purchase something, by federal law, for the first time. Now, that mandate requires them to purchase something that violates their moral conscience.
Never before has an American president so openly and wantonly disregarded the religious civil liberties of so many.
Last Friday, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that it would make final the rule mandating that insurance policies provide for contraceptive services, including sterilization, and drugs with an abortifacient mechanism of action.
With this rule, hundreds of religious colleges and hospitals, for example, will now be required –in fact, coerced — into providing insurance coverage for practices they believe to be morally wrong and violative of their religious beliefs. These institutions, which have educated citizens and cared for the infirm for hundreds of years, will now have to cave into the federal government or close their doors.
Religious freedom is the lifeblood of the American people, the cornerstone of American government. When the Founding Fathers determined that the innate rights of men and women should be enshrined in our Constitution, they so esteemed religious liberty that they made it the first freedom in the Bill of Rights.
In particular, the Founding Fathers fiercely defended the right of conscience. George Washington himself declared: “The conscientious scruples of all men should be treated with great delicacy and tenderness; and it is my wish and desire, that the laws may always be extensively accommodated to them.” James Madison, a key defender of religious freedom and author of the First Amendment, said: “Conscience is the most sacred of all property.”
Scarcely two weeks ago, in its Hosanna-Tabor decision upholding the right of churches to make ministerial hiring decisions, the Supreme Court unanimously and enthusiastically reaffirmed these longstanding and foundational principles of religious freedom. The court made clear that they include the right of religious institutions to control their internal affairs.
Yet the Obama administration has veered in the opposite direction. It has refused to exempt religious institutions that serve the common good—including Catholic schools, charities and hospitals—from its sweeping new health-care mandate that requires employers to purchase contraception, including abortion-producing drugs, and sterilization coverage for their employees.
What readers from countries outside the US should understand for proper context, this is a radical departure from US law and custom.
Last August, when the administration first proposed this nationwide mandate for contraception and sterilization coverage, it also proposed a “religious employer” exemption. But this was so narrow that…even Jesus and His disciples would not qualify for the exemption in that case, because they were committed to serve those of other faiths.
Since then, hundreds of religious institutions, and hundreds of thousands of individual citizens, have raised their voices in principled opposition to this requirement that religious institutions and individuals violate their own basic moral teaching in their health plans. Certainly many of these good people and groups were Catholic, but many were Americans of other faiths, or no faith at all, who recognize that their beliefs could be next on the block. They also recognize that the cleverest way for the government to erode the broader principle of religious freedom is to target unpopular beliefs first.
Now we have learned that those loud and strong appeals were ignored. On Friday, the administration reaffirmed the mandate, and offered only a one-year delay in enforcement in some cases—as if we might suddenly be more willing to violate our consciences 12 months from now.
In one sweeping move, president Obama and his Catholic health secretary have succeeded in something no other groups or efforts or initatives or projects have been able to do: unite and galvanize Catholics on the right and left. It’s an amazing feat, really.
When Barack Obama secured his party’s nomination for president in 2008, one group of Democrats had special reason to cheer.
These were Democrats who were reliably liberal on policy but horrified by the party’s sometimes knee-jerk animosity to faith. The low point may have been the 1992 Democratic convention. There the liberal but pro-life governor of Pennsylvania, Bob Casey Sr., was humiliated when he was denied a speaking slot while a pro-choice Republican activist from his home state was allowed.
With Mr. Obama, all this looked to be in the past…And Mr. Obama would go on to capture a majority of the Catholic vote.
Now, suddenly, we have headlines about the president’s “war on the Catholic Church.” Mostly they stem from a Health and Human Services mandate that forces every employer to provide employees with health coverage that not only covers birth control and sterilization, but makes them free. Predictably, the move has drawn fire from the Catholic bishops.
Less predictable—and far more interesting—has been the heat from the Catholic left, including many who have in the past given the president vital cover. In a post for the left-leaning National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters minces few words. Under the headline “J’ACCUSE,” he rightly takes the president to the woodshed for the politics of the decision, for the substance, and for how “shamefully” it treats “those Catholics who went out on a limb” for him.
The message Mr. Obama is sending, says Mr. Winters, is “that there is no room in this great country of ours for the institutions our Church has built over the years to be Catholic in ways that are important to us.”
Mr. Winters is not alone. The liberal Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop emeritus of Los Angeles, blogged that he “cannot imagine a more direct and frontal attack on freedom of conscience”—and he urged people to fight it. Another liberal favorite, Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla., has raised the specter of “civil disobedience” and vowed that he will drop coverage for diocesan workers rather than comply. They are joined in their expressions of discontent by the leaders of Catholic Relief Services and Catholic Charities, which alone employs 70,000 people.
In the run-up to the ruling, the president of Notre Dame, the Rev. John Jenkins, suggested a modest compromise by which the president could have avoided most of this strife. That would have been by allowing the traditional exemption for religious organizations. That’s the same understanding two of the president’s own appointees to the Supreme Court just reaffirmed in a 9-0 ruling that recognized a faith-based school’s First Amendment right to choose its own ministers without government interference, regardless of antidiscrimination law.
A few years ago Father Jenkins took enormous grief when he invited President Obama to speak at a Notre Dame commencement; now Father Jenkins finds himself publicly disapproving of an “unnecessary government intervention” that puts many organizations such as his in an “untenable position.”
Here’s just part of what he means by “untenable”: Were Notre Dame to drop coverage for its 5,229 employees, the HHS penalty alone would amount to $10 million each year.
The irony, of course, is that the ruling is being imposed by a Catholic Health and Human Services secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, working in an administration with a Catholic vice president, Joe Biden. A few years back the voluble Mr. Biden famously threatened to “shove my rosary beads” down the throat of those who dared suggest that his party’s positions on social issues put it at odds with people of faith. Does he now mean to include Mr. Winters, Cardinal Mahony and Father Jenkins?
Catholic liberals appreciate that this HHS decision is more than a return to the hostility that sent so many Catholic Democrats fleeing to the Republican Party these past few decades. They understand that if left to stand, this ruling threatens the religious institutions closest to their hearts—those serving Americans in need, such as hospitals, soup kitchens and immigrant services.
Conservatives may enjoy the problems this creates for Mr. Obama this election year. Still, for those who care about issues such as life and marriage and religious liberty that so roil our body politic, we ought to wish Catholic progressives well in their intra-liberal fight. For we shall never arrive at the consensus we hope for if we allow our politics to be divided between a party of faith and a party of animosity to faith.
Stay tuned. This is ramping up by the day.