RELIGIOUS LIBERTY UNDER FIRE?: Supporters of religious freedom and against President Obama's HHS mandates on faith institutions rallied in front of the HHS building on March 23. New protest rallies led by Catholic and conservative groups are taking place around the nation. (Photo: Olivier Douliery/Newscom)
Last Friday at noon, hundreds of demonstrators gathered on Capitol Hill and at rallies across the nation to protest President Barack Obama’s health-care law and, specifically, the law’s mandate requiring employers to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives.
Conservative politicians and activists led the charge, with leaders such as Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann declaring, “This is about, at its heart and soul, religious liberty. … We will fight this and we will win.” Bachmann’s battle cry represents a growing movement of religious conservatives who contend that the president’s plan violates their freedom and beliefs.
Growing up, I had the opportunity to attend a Catholic school until my senior year. As a result, I know first-hand the strong commitment to pro-life causes that many Catholics hold. For instance, as a choir member, it was an annual tradition for us to sing at the youth mass that occurred before the Right to Life March, a protest against Roe v. Wade. Abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty were topics that came up regularly in religion class. So it came as no surprise when I heard that 34 Catholic organizations have filed 12 federal lawsuits challenging the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ birth control mandate under the Affordable Care Act (also known as “Obamacare”).
Under the mandate, employers are required to provide access to contraceptive services as part of their health plans at no cost. However, as President Obama stated during a February 10 press conference, “[W]e’ve been mindful that there’s another principle at stake here — and that’s the principle of religious liberty, an inalienable right that is enshrined in our Constitution. As a citizen and a Christian, I cherish that right.” Knowing that many religious institutions oppose the use of contraceptives, originally all churches were exempted from the requirement. Now, that exemption is extended to any religious organization that has an objection to providing contraceptives; in those cases, the insurance company is responsible, not the organization.
To many people, including Christians, this sounds reasonable. So, why are Catholic organizations complaining?
The problem, they argue, is in the definition of “religious organizations.” In a lawsuit filed by Catholic organizations in Washington, D.C., the plaintiffs state that the mandate requires religious organizations to satisfy four criteria.
• First, the organization’s purpose must involve teaching and sharing religious values.
• Second, employees must subscribe to the same faith.
• Third, the organization must primarily serve those that subscribe to the same faith.
• Finally, the organization must be a non-profit.
“Thus, in order to safeguard their religious freedoms,” the lawsuit continues, “religious employers must plead with the Government for a determination that they are sufficiently ‘religious.’ ” Failure to adhere to the mandate could lead to penalties and fines. Since many Catholic organizations, such as hospitals, charities, and schools, employ and extend services to people of different faiths (and many people who claim no faith at all), it would be difficult to prove they are exempt from the mandate based on religion.
“If a group isn’t perceived as ‘religious,’ then they will be forced to provide drugs that violate their doctrine,” says Chieko Noguchi, the Director of Communications for the Archdiocese of Washington, one of the plaintiffs. “If the government can order us to violate our conscience, then what comes next?”
But don’t think that this is just a Catholic issue. According to the mandate’s opponents, it affects all Americans who profess to believe in God.
“One of the central missions of any church is supporting the less fortunate in our communities,” writes Lutheran pastor Joe Watkins in a June 3 editorial for the Philadelphia Inquirer. “With this mandate’s redefinition of a religious institution, many charitable operations will effectively be driven out of business. Under the new law if you are a Lutheran charity and you provide help to or hire non-Lutherans, you cease to be a religious institution. The same goes for Catholics, other Protestant denominations, and all other faith-based organizations.” He also argues that this will not only impact all religious groups, but also those who are either influenced or helped by these groups, since more time would be dedicated to religious background checks for potential employees and clients.
“It is distressing that our government would opt for a coercive and unfair regulation that requires us to make such an impossible choice,” Watkins wrote. “As a church, we have always opposed the use of drugs and procedures that are abortion-inducing. … Under this new governmental regulation, though, just by simply following our beliefs, we will face penalties under law.”
Watkins isn’t alone in his critique of the mandate. Back in February, some 2,500 Catholic, evangelical, Protestant, Jewish, and other religious leaders signed a letter asking the President to “reverse this decision and protest the conscience rights of those who have biblically based opposition to funding or providing contraceptives and abortifacients.” Also, the Catholic Church is planning to invite evangelicals for their upcoming event “Fortnight for Freedom,” which will take place the two weeks between June 21 and July 4 in order to bring attention to religious freedom issues.
In his speech announcing changes to the mandate, President Obama reflected on his first job in Chicago working with Catholic parishes in poor neighborhood. “I saw that local churches often did more good for a community than a government program ever could, so I know how important the work that faith-based organizations do and how much impact they can have in their communities.”
I am living proof of the positive effects of the faith-based organizations that President Obama described. I’m a proud, non-Catholic alumna of a Catholic school who understands why Catholics and their supporters are upset and concerned by the Affordable Care Act’s implications for religious freedom. By defining what a religious organization is, the HHS mandate could potentially hinder Christians from living out their faith with integrity. We, as Christians, are called to serve others no matter what. As a self-professed believer, President Obama should’ve recognized this.
What do you think?
Are Catholics and their conservative allies overreacting to the mandate or do they have a point?
COURSE CORRECTION: President Obama and Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius during their Feb. 10 announcement of a compromise on the contraception mandate. The compromise was a response to the concerns of religious organizations that believe contraceptives violate their religious faith. (Photo: Joshua Roberts/Newscom)
Last week, President Obama, along with Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, unveiled a compromise agreement for implementing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). The president, of course, had been getting hammered by both his political friends and foes following a decision to not exempt faith-based organizations (other than houses of worship) from a condition in his healthcare reform requiring employers to cover their employees’ contraception costs.
The Obama administration claims that the compromise balances “individual liberty” and “basic fairness.” Individual liberty here refers specifically to religious liberty claims, especially those made by religiously affiliated organizations like Catholic Charities, hospitals, and universities. Basic fairness, by contrast, signifies groups like Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-choice America, and other advocates who argue that a woman’s wellbeing hinges upon access to comprehensive reproductive healthcare, including contraception. The latter group further maintains that access to such care reduces health-care costs. Opponents generally concede the cost point, but balk at the idea that religious employers should be legally required to pay for or directly provide contraceptive services, an activity which contradicts papal doctrine within the Catholic Church.
President Obama’s compromise predictably attempts to solidify support from progressive Catholics and blunt the “war on religion” critique of political conservatives. Yet another question remains: how did Obama, who received an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame, so thoroughly misjudge the objections of his supporters, particularly Catholic ones?
One possible account is that Obama failed to gauge the consequences of implementing ACA based on a narrow definition of religious employers. Justice in healthcare markets is not simply a question of who gets coverage, of what sort, and who pays for it. It’s also about the moral significance and legal scope of religious exemptions from mandates within ACA. Under what circumstances are religious groups exempt from laws which bind other organizations? More pointedly, what exactly constitutes a religious employer?
Does it refer exclusively to houses of worship or are religiously affiliated colleges, universities, and social service agencies included? The Obama administration chose the “house of worship” definition, presumably thinking they arranged an acceptable balance between liberty and fairness. The immediate and intense response to their decision convinced the administration that their restrictive definition was perceived not as an attempt to ensure that all recipients of taxpayer dollars play by the same rules, but as an attempt to force religiously affiliated employers to pay for coverage that violates their religious convictions.
I doubt that the administration intentionally sought to marginalize religious liberty in implementing the new healthcare law. Obama, after all, is a Christian who, as he notes, started working in Chicago as a community organizer, paid by the Catholic Church to mobilize Catholic parishes. It would seem odd to undermine the religious liberty of the organization which helped refine his sense of public service.
Nevertheless, the administration apparently neglected to sufficiently consult the fragile coalition that made his ACA possible in the first place — one thinks of Catholic Health United, columnists like the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne, and others.
In 2008, President Obama campaigned as an individual change agent who could transform partisan politics and the machinery of public administration. The reality is that, more often than not, politics is a reactive enterprise of elected officials issuing then clarifying public statements; implementing laws, then revising that process in response to organized money, organized people, and organized voices.
Obama initially struck the wrong balance between religious liberty and access to preventive healthcare, giving due attention to the latter principle and insufficient attention to the former. To his credit, he listened and corrected his misjudgment.
When the government upholds an important principle and simultaneously shortchanges the civil right to freely exercise religion, it is the responsibility of religious groups to petition the government for a redress of grievances. That responsibility, after all, is also a civil right.
The President Breaks It to Them Gently
President Barack Obama “personally” broke the news to two influential Catholic leaders (New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan and Sister Carol Keehan, “a pivotal supporter” of the Affordable Care Act) that his health care law would require Catholic hospitals and universities to provide contraception in their employee health plans, Politico reported.
Catholic Bishops Object
“Bishops and lay Catholic leaders across the United States have made it clear that we cannot comply with this unjust law without compromising our convictions and undermining the Catholic identity of many of our service ministries,” said ArchBishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, according to according to the National Catholic Register.
Who Speaks for Rank-and-File Catholics?
“It is crucial in this dispute to distinguish between the Catholic hierarchy and rank-and-file Catholics,” said Stephen Prothero at CNN. “Are the only ‘real Catholics’ in America the priests decrying the new Obama administration policy and the 2% of U.S. Catholic women who rely only on ‘natural’ birth control? Who is to speak for the other 98%?” he asked.
A ‘Courageous Decision’
“I am going to stick with my fellow Catholics in supporting the administration on this. I think it was a very courageous decision that they made, and I support it,” said House Minoirity Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.) when questioned by CNSNews.com
‘Obama Threw Progressive Catholics Under the Bus’
“Obama threw his progressive Catholic allies under the bus and strengthened the hand of those inside the Church who had originally sought to derail the health-care law,” said Catholic Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr.
Romney Pounces; Gets Pounced Upon
Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney accused the president of ordering ‘religious organizations to violate their conscience,’ but once took a similar step, The Boston Globe reported.
The White House Stands Firm
“There was extensive and careful consideration as this policy was developed and a decision was made. And the issue here is we want to be sure women, all women, have access to good health care,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told The Washington Post when the issue started to heat up.
What Qualifies as a Religious Institution?
Associated Press reporter Rachel Zoll said the decision “raises a complex and sensitive legal question: Which institutions qualify as religious and can be exempt from the mandate?”
“For a church, mosque or synagogue, the answer is mostly straightforward. But for the massive network of religious-run social service agencies there is no simple solution,” said Zoll.
Evangelicals and Catholics Together Again
Evangelicals and Catholics are outraged and petitioning, The Christian Post reported.
‘Paying for the Privilege of Violating One’s Conscience’
“There would have been no controversy at all if President Obama had simply exempted religious institutions and ministries. But the administration insisted that the University of Notre Dame and St. Mary’s Hospital be forced to pay for the privilege of violating their convictions. Obama chose to substantially burden a religious belief, by the most intrusive means, for a less-than-compelling state purpose — a marginal increase in access to contraceptives that are easily available elsewhere,” said Former George H.W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson in his syndicated column.
What Do You Think
Should there be a conscience clause in federal health care law?