Obama’s Healthcare Mandate: Redefining Religious Freedom?

Obama’s Healthcare Mandate: Redefining Religious Freedom?

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?

The Wisdom of the Health Care Mandate

The Wisdom of the Health Care Mandate

As the U.S. Supreme Court wrestles with the constitutionality of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, and especially the “individual mandate” provision requiring every capable American citizen to buy health insurance, many people continue to frame the debate as one of individual rights versus socialized medicine. They view a law requiring all citizens to buy insurance as a violation of fundamental American freedoms. I’d suggest the opposite: requiring all Americans to own health insurance is actually a demonstration of American patriotism and solidarity.

Allow me to explain.

Guess how many states today have laws that REQUIRE citizens TO BUY insurance? FIFTY. That’s right, folks. Every single one of them. Red states as well as Blue states require citizens to buy insurance. To be more specific, every single state requires citizens who drive motor vehicles to buy liability insurance to cover any damage they might inflict.

Now of course this law doesn’t apply to everyone. There are two primary classes of people who do not have to buy automobile liability insurance. Those who don’t drive. And those who can prove financial responsibility to cover any damage they might cause up to a certain limit.

The rationale behind these laws requiring citizens to buy liability insurance is simple. There is a significant risk that anyone who drives a motor vehicle may, over the course of their lifetime, cause an accident which causes damage to the property or bodies of others. There is a strong societal interest in making sure that those so injured can be compensated for their losses. You cannot buy insurance to cover an injury after you cause it. You have to have the insurance ahead of time. The insurance covers the damages caused by negligent drivers. Of course, this cost is paid for by all of the non-negligent drivers who pay their premiums every month without causing any damage. Hence, the requirement that ALL drivers, negligent as well as careful, carry liability insurance.

Those of us who live on planet Earth are also at significant risk of needing medical treatment at some point in our lives. We may contract a disease, be injured as the result of an accident, or develop some other illness or chronic condition — sometimes as the result of our own choices, sometimes not. There is a strong societal interest in making sure that those who need medical treatment can afford treatment for those illnesses. There is also a strong societal interest in making sure that those who provide medical treatment are compensated for having done so.

Health insurance, like any other form of insurance, only works if there is a shared assumption of the risk. Insurance companies rely on actuarial tables to assess the risk and base their rates accordingly (after factoring in a healthy profit, of course). Healthy people have to pay into the program so that sick people are covered. Previously, insurance companies could refuse coverage or charge significantly higher rates for people with pre-existing medical conditions. The current legislation seeks to prevent that by spreading the risk around to all citizens.

Now some may argue that health insurance is different than auto insurance because only people who drive motor vehicles have to purchase insurance. Granted that is true, mandatory health insurance should only be required of citizens who might be expected to contract, carry, pass on, or suffer from a medical condition, or sustain an injury requiring medical treatment. Of course, since I’ve yet to meet another human being who doesn’t fit that profile, I think it’s safe to say it applies to everyone. All of us are vulnerable to physical injury and ailments. Only corpses are not at risk of needing health care.

For those who still think the individual mandate is a violation of one’s individual freedom, another option would be an opt-out provision. To be effective, this kind of provision would need to come with the understanding that those who opt out are not entitled to receive any medical-care treatment that they haven’t paid for prior to the administration of the treatment. Kind of like buying broccoli at the grocery store — you can’t take it home and eat it until you’ve paid for it. If you opt out and don’t have the money when a health issue hits, you’ll get no EMT care, no ambulance ride, no appendectomy, no CPR, no emergency room care, no cancer treatment, no life-saving procedures.

Nada. Zip. Nothing.

If you think this is a cruel approach to health care — leaving people to suffer or die who can’t afford treatment — I agree with you. But what justification for entitlement to treatment can people give who, given the chance to share the risk with the rest of us, REFUSE to do so?

Mandatory health insurance is PATRIOTIC. It exemplifies the highest ideals of the American public — a willingness to stand up with our fellow citizens against threats against any of us. That means patriotic citizens who are willing to fight and die in the military against threats to the rights and freedoms from our enemies. And it means patriotic citizens being willing to pay for our fair share to spread the risk around, standing together against threats to our health. We don’t want our fellow citizens to be denied health insurance by insurance companies because they have pre-existing medical conditions, or to be charged so much they can’t afford it. We don’t want our fellow citizens losing their homes because of catastrophic illness. We don’t want our fellow citizens buried in debt which they can never repay because of some medical misfortune. We’ve got each other’s backs. That’s how we roll.

May God bless America, and may every American citizen be willing to shoulder his or her fair share of the risk to provide medical care for all, even if it means the government requiring us to buy it.

Obama’s Contraceptive Correction

Obama’s Contraceptive Correction

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.

Left, Right, and Christ

Left, Right, and Christ

CIVIL DISCOURSE: Lisa Sharon Harper and D.C. Innes provide a model for constructive Christian dialogue across political divides.

Left, Right & Christ is a thoughtful examination of the intersection of evangelical faith and politics by two evangelicals who have spent their careers working amidst the tensions of that sometimes-crazy political space. In the book, coauthors Lisa Sharon Harper, a politically progressive Christian, and D.C. Innes, a politically conservative Christian, engage in a constructive dialogue about the issues that are defining the nature of political discourse in our nation today — healthcare, abortion, immigration, gay marriage, the environment. (Full disclosure: I helped research Lisa Sharon Harper’s portion of the book.) A couple months ago, Innes and Harper held a panel discussion and book signing with Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Innes, an associate professor of politics at King’s College, offered a construal of Christian public engagement from the right; Harper, director of mobilizing at Sojourners, shared one from the left. Needless to say, it was a lively discussion. Having read the book and attended the launch event, two things merit mentioning here here.

The role of technology in disrupting consumption and employment

An audience member noted that technology plays an often-overlooked role in reconfiguring labor markets and purchasing patterns. For instance, the advent of automated teller machines — ATMs — marks an improvement in the access and availability of money for consumers. ATMs, however, reduce the need for the traditional function of tellers in local bank branches. As more banks adopted ATMs, consumer patterns shifted and the demand for a certain type of labor diminished.

Neither Innes nor Harper fully integrates this ongoing development — Austrian economist Joseph Schumpter calls it creative destruction — of technology in particular, and capitalism more generally, into their account of the State, the Market, and the Church. To their credit, though, both authors acknowledged the point once it was made. Technology is an existential issue as much as an instrumental one. Phrased differently, it not only alters what we do, but it also radically re-arranges our way of being in the world. I left the panel thinking about this question: What does it mean to be the Church in a world where technology is such a powerful force? To put it crudely, is a proximate cause in unemployment and underemployment from Wall Street to Main Street and our consumption of everything — from the news we read to the Facebook updates on our profiles — is mediated through technology? I’m still pondering this one and I encourage you to consider it as well.

The use of Scripture in political arguments

While reading the book and listening to their remarks, I noticed an interesting difference between the co-authors. Ms. Harper generally constructs her arguments from passages of the Old Testament. Her treatment of Genesis 1-3 distinctively accents the image of God doctrine and shalom theology. It is rather commonplace to hear Christians from the left invoke the Hebrew prophets or the Imago Dei as a resource for biblical claims about justice and human dignity. Harper’s unique turn within that conversation is to take Genesis — rather than say, Amos or Isaiah — as her starting point and then to deepen the appeal to the image of God doctrine by connecting it to shalom — the sense of wholeness and right relationships between people, between people and creation, and between people and God.

Mr. Innes, conversely, places the weight of his arguments in New Testament passages like Romans 13:1-7 and 2 Peter 2:13-17. His vision: God ordains the government to restrain human sin, punish evil, and praise the good. The last point is particularly important for the professor, who draws a distinction between a government that praises the good (i.e. distributing civic awards like the Presidential Medal of Freedom) and a public sector that attempts to provide goods such as housing, healthcare, and so on. Innes’ arguments — in the book and in person — conclude that a State with large public expenditures and direct service programs overreaches the biblical proscribed role for government.

At the event, Wallis and Innes held a brief but interesting exchange on regulation, Wall Street, and punishing evildoers. Wallis agreed with Innes that punishing evil and restraining sin is a biblical function of government. He then challenged Innes with a question like the following: “Why not apply the insight about punishing evil when it comes to Wall Street?” Innes did not offer a response, although in fairness to him, Wallis did not substantiate his provocative inquiry with a specific example. Nevertheless, given the high-profile conviction of Raj Rajaratnam for insider trading — and his eleven-year sentence, the longest ever issued for this type of offense — Wallis and Innes certainly stumbled upon a discussion worth having.

The panel discussion took place with a refreshing amount of charity amidst contrasting perspectives. Despite harboring significant and perhaps irreconcilable differences of political opinion, neither one made the argumentative move of questioning the other’s faith, audibly doubting the “biblical” nature of the opposing argument, or otherwise resorting to ad hominem attacks. Harper and Innes’ book, and their public dialogue, provides a helpful example for Christians from left to right. In a political environment that incessantly caricatures and stereotypes contrasting points of view, a steadfast refusal to bear false witness — and its corollary commitment, telling the truth as we see it — is a distinctive gift of conversational charity that Christians can bring to democratic discourse.