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?

2011 News Highlights

2011 News Highlights

POLITICS

Protesters descended on cities across the country to make their cases for the preservation or elimination of federal programs.

1. In politics, the battle over the federal budget raged all year.  Lisa Sharon Harper offered thoughts on a Christian approach to it,  others debated whether or not to lift the federal debt ceiling, and former New Jersey Secretary of State Rev. De Forest Soaries offered his thoughts on a potential deal, which some described as a Satan Sandwich.  As a  government shutdown loomed, a congressional “super-committee” failed to compromise, and the battle rages on.

Sparks flew with Herman Cain on the campaign trail. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

2. The 2012 presidential race heated up and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain briefly emerged as a Republican dark horse. We looked at his viability, asked if his candidacy was good for Americarealized he wouldn’t be easily written off, and lamented the scandal about which he may or may not have sung as he exited the race. Meanwhile, Michele Bachmann speculated that blacks may have been better off under slavery and Larycia A. Hawkins offered the congresswoman a bit of advice. Texas governor Rick Perry limped along, but it seems his ‘Rainbow Right‘ coalition didn’t help him much, and fleeting front-runners Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul were such long shots that they had nary a mention here until now.

3. Meanwhile, the Tea Party partied on and we talked to African Americans about the movement. First singer, author, and activist Loyd Marcus assured us that there are black Tea Partiers, then Tea Party activist Jesse Lee Peterson threatened to protest the NAACP’s annual convention and Hilary O. Shelton responded. Finally, LaVonne Neff reminded us that Tea Partiers need government programs too.

The Occupy Movement spread across the country.

4. From the other end of the political spectrum, the “Occupy” movement emerged and encamped across the country, but we asked: Is it too white and is it time for churches to take up the cause?

5. According to members of the Religion Newswriters Association, the biggest religion story of the year was the faith response to the assassination of Osama bin Laden.  Here at UrbanFaith, Todd Burke pondered what the terrorist’s death says about America.

INTERNATIONAL

Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani was arrested and sentenced to death in Iran because of his Christian beliefs.

In international news, 1.) dictators Kim Jong-Il and Moammar Gadhafi died. UrbanFaith editorial director Ed Gilbreath provocatively asked if Ghadhafi was a martyr and Helen Lee, daughter of a North Korean refugee, shared her thoughts on what it means to love an enemy like Jong-Il. 2.) The Arab Spring captured our attention and historian Kurt Werthmuller offered lessons from the revolution. We covered 3.) various crisis in Africa, including those in  SomaliaUganda, Malawi, and Sudan, and 4.) we wondered if race played a role in the London riots that preceded the European financial crisis. Finally, 5.) DeVona Alleyne reminded us that real persecution is that which is faced by believers like Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who was sentenced to death for his faith.

CULTURE & SOCIETY

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial opened in August.

On the cultural front, 1.) the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial finally opened, though not without controversy and not without delay.  2.) Historian Charles Marsh reflected on the death of Civil Rights icon and pastor Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. 3.) Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs’ also died this year and Jelani Greenridge meditated on the entrepreneur’s wisdom. 4.) The nation solemnly observed the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and dedicated a memorial at the World Trade Center site, as the war in Iraq that those attacks spurred finally came to an end. 5.) The 150th anniversary of Civil War went largely unnoticed, but not by us. And sadly, 6.) legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was fired amidst a scandal over assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s alleged pedophilia. Wil LaViest, Julian DeShazier, and I responded to the horrific news.

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

After 25 years Oprah Winfrey says goodbye to her talk show.

1.) In arts and entertainment, Oprah Winfrey ended her talk show after 25 years and we revisited the “Church of Oprah.” No need to fear a loss of black media power, however because 2.)  Forbes named Tyler Perry the richest man in Hollywood. We covered elements of his media empire here, here, here, and here. 3.) The Help opened in cinemas amidst plenty of debate about its merits or lack thereof. 4.) Controversial Gospel music crossover success stories like that of Tonéx got Jelani Greenridge thinking and we mourned the death of cross-over artist Jessy Dixon. 5.) Lastly, BET’s successful relaunch of The Game deserves a mention, even though our commentator didn’t care much for the values of the show (or lack thereof).

CHURCH & FAITH

Bishop Eddie Long and Rev. Bernice King before she left his church.

In church and faith news, 1.) Bishop Eddie Long agreed to a financial settlement with four young men who accused him of sexual misconduct, Bernice King left his church in the aftermath, questions continued to swirl about the allegations, but Long didn’t step down from the pulpit until his wife filed for divorce this month. In better news, 2.) The Hartford Institute for Religion Research reported that the black church is bucking a wider trend toward congregational decline, and 3.) the Southern Baptists got serious about diversity with the election of  Rev. Fred Luter as their first African American vice president. We also reported on other denominations that are pursuing diversity. 4.) Pastor Rob Bell stirred up a theological hornet’s nest with his latest book and conservative authors responded. 5.) Finally, Rev. Zachery Tims met an untimely death in a New York City hotel room.

What do you think?

What stories did we miss? Which ones will you remember? What do you think will top the news in 2012?

Raising Cain

Raising Cain

MAN ON THE RISE: Herman Cain at the Family Research Council's Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., last week. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/Newscom)

While reports of his imminent demise persist, Herman Cain is nonetheless “raising cane” in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. In fact, a just-released NBC/Wall Street Journal poll places him as the current frontrunner in the GOP race for president.

He’s been termed a “marginal candidate” by the likes of conservative operatives like Fred Barnes.

He’s been deemed unelectable by likely voters.

He’s been charged by conservatives like Michael Medved with the crime of “needlessly” playing the race card when he called a spade a spade in his repudiation of the “N-word” scrawled on an edifice at the Perry family ranch.

Yet, Cain rises.

Despite the pessimism of prognosticators, pundits, and party elites, businessman Herman Cain has emerged as the “yes we can” of the political right.

Compared to the presumed nominee Mitt Romney, Cain has managed to inspire the right’s base. Cain musters 31 percent support from self-described conservatives, compared to Romney’s 15 percent support among the same. Tea Partiers are sipping the Cain Kool-Aid too, with 24 percent support of their heft backing Cain and only 17 percent support for Romney. Pure social conservatives love Cain too — while he came in second place at the Values Voter Summit this month, Tony Perkins of the host group, the Family Research Council, noted that Cain was the obvious winner since 600 of Ron Paul’s minions conveniently flooded the conference only for the Straw Poll on the Saturday morning of the conference.

Perkins said values voters are excited by Herman Cain. “He is a success story,” Perkins told CNN. “If you look at his life — how he has grown up and how he was successful in the business world, and those principles of hard work, of faith, of following the teachings of Scripture and Jesus Christ — he is an example of that, and it’s reflective in his success.”

What are we to make of this apparent surge? Whether Democrat or Republican, ambivalent or animated about the primaries, it would be wise to take Cain’s candidacy seriously.

Recall that four years ago, a rising star in the Democratic primary race was counted out as inexperienced and unelectable, despite his rousing oratory. And he’s now President.

Comparisons of Cain to President Obama are inevitable for obvious reasons. And it wouldn’t be the first time that Republicans sought their own “Black Conservative” answer to the phenomenon that is Barack Obama. Yet, this time the candidate isn’t a drafted carpetbagger who’s being rushed onto the stage solely because of his skin color and loud voice. Cain appears to be his own man.

Pundits and pollsters have too easily dismissed Herman Cain’s candidacy, but the conservative base appears to have a new anointed one — at least for the time being. He’s not the clear frontrunner just yet, but he’s certainly raising cane in the Republican contest. Still, it wasn’t that long ago that Michele Bachmann (remember her?) and Rick Perry had all the buzz and momentum. In a GOP race that discards the favored ones just as quickly as it elevates them, can Cain keep it up?

Where Was God in Hurricane Irene?

Where Was God in Hurricane Irene?

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A message for Hurricane Irene in Point Pleasant Beach, NJ

“Our storms have not yet been tamed. But our God has,” said Boston University Religion scholar Stephen Prothero at CNN’s Belief blog as Hurricane Irene made her way up the East Coast over the weekend.

“When the Great Colonial Hurricane raced up the east coast and lashed New England in August 1635, its 130 mph winds and 21-foot storm surge were almost universally viewed in supernatural rather than natural terms—as a judgment of God on the unfaithful,” he said.

Now, we generally view those (like Pat Robertson) who express such views as “cranks and outliers-relics of a bygone age” because the language of science has largely “routed” the language of theology when it comes to earthquakes and hurricanes, said Prothero.

As if right on cue, a campaign spokesperson for presidential candidate Michele Bachmann claimed her boss was joking Sunday when she suggested that Irene was sent to deliver a political punch. “I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians,” said Bachmann. “We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said, ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?'”

“Video of Bachmann’s appearance in Florida shows that her remarks were delivered in at least something of a lighthearted way. If the campaign says she meant it as a joke, it’s a believable explanation. That does, though, raise the question of whether it’s appropriate for a presidential candidate and member of Congress to be joking about a major weather event that has already resulted in fatalities and extensive property damage, and isn’t over yet,” Politico’s Alexander Burns chided.

His is a good question six years after Hurricane Katrina unfurled her wrath on the Gulf Coast. The devestated Ninth Ward of New Orleans “still looks like a ghost town,” the Associated Press reported. “Redevelopment has been slow in coming, and the neighborhood has just 5,500 residents — one-third its pre-Katrina population.”

Nevertheless, there is citywide reason to celebrate.

“Entrepreneurship and civic engagement is up, city schools have shown test-score gains and the middle class is growing, according to a new report by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, a group tracking the city’s recovery. Even crime — still nearly twice the national average — is being held in check and falling, the report said. Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers is getting closer to finishing $14 billion in work to better shield the city from future hurricanes.”

The world God created, loves, and is working to redeem and restore is a place of beauty and fecundity and of arbitrary brutality and terror,” said West Virginia Wesleyan College Assistant Professor of Religion Debra Dean Murphy at Sojourners’ God’s Politics blog. “We’ve been wounded by organized religion, perhaps, disgusted by its hierarchies and hypocrisies” and decide we can worship God on a mountaintop or a golf course, until an earthquake or hurricane “spoils the romance,” she said.

“The cruel caprice leaves us in stunned silence. But being the chatterers most of us are, we rush to fill the silence, to explain the unexplainable, often with well-worn pieties (‘God has a purpose in all of this’) that can be as cruel as the destruction they mean to rationalize. The biblical tradition asks us to wrestle our whole lives with this paradox.”

As a lifelong Jersey Shore resident I’ve not only wrestled, but have learned to hold these truths in tension. I revel in God’s handiwork and respect it, but worship him alone. 

The Bachmann Blahs

The Bachmann Blahs

LOSING MOMENTUM: Can GOP Congresswoman Michele Bachmann continue to win over doubters with her ambitious presidential bid?

The rise of Republican congresswoman and Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann as a serious presidential candidate has provided one of the more curious storylines for political observers this summer. As a female political scientist intrigued by Bachmann’s ascent, I initially wondered if she might best Mitt Romney in the primaries — a feat that Hillary Rodham Clinton failed to accomplish on the Democratic side in her bid against the eventual presidential victor, Barack Obama.

Now I’m wondering if my curiosity was misplaced. You see, a few weeks back Bachmann’s momentum seemed inevitable. Polls showed her hanging neck-in-neck with Mitt Romney.

Lately, however, she’s been singing the blahs. 

Not the blues, the blahs. The same old blah, blah, blah songs that failed to inspire Independents and youth voters to vote for Republicans in the last election. Bachmann is singing from the same hymnbook that the Christian Right has been floating around since the 1980s—the same old song that lost Republicans the 2008 election. So what is the evangelical contender getting the most pre-primary buzz — Michele Bachmann — to do?

To be successful in the 2012 race, Bachmann must drop the national anthem of evangelical politics — God, guns, and gays. This song of “the 3 G’s” has played itself out. That Michele Bachmann supports the 3 G’s is intuitively obvious. So why keep singing the same tired tune?

We know from Bachmann’s biography that Jesus is her homeboy. We know based on her ‘A’ rating from the National Rifle Association that even if she’s not personally packing an Uzi, she supports your right to do so. We know from the horse’s mouth that she signed a controversial pledge supporting a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman — a controversial pledge because it also stated that African American children were better off during slavery than they are in 2011 under the administration of a black President.

Sounds like the same old refrain that lost the GOP the election in 2008. Is there anything new in the 2012 Republican knapsack or is Bachmann simply the same old Sarah Palin wine in new wineskins? To be a serious contender, Bachmann must refashion her image, bucking the widely held assumption that she is Palin’s Midwestern clone — even if secretly, she is. But how?

Time for a new tune on the evangelical political iPod. Push the evangelical envelope by singing the 3 P’s — pluralism, peace, and Priuses. This new hymn is in the style and key of a core constituency — youth voters. Tout religious pluralism in the campaign, including interfaith efforts to combat issues like sex trafficking. Embrace the increasing numbers of young Christian pacifists who oppose the current wars and the notion that any war can be classified as a just one. Emphasize environmental concerns in a convincing manner given that global warming is an undisputed fact according to a majority of young evangelicals, many of whom probably think Jesus would probably drive a Prius.

Youth voters, including young evangelicals, were crucial to Obama’s victory in 2008. Obama understood that young voters are devoted to the 3 P’s, but not so much the 3 G’s. Yes, evangelical youth are more pro-life than their parents, but they are more likely to believe that Jesus was a social justice revolutionary in the manner of Shane Claiborne than the harbinger of a holy war against public schools.

Less talk about gay marriage and more talk about greening the ghetto would take the evangelical agenda, and Bachmann’s campaign, to new heights. It’s time for a new song in an increasingly outmoded evangelical hymnbook.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of UrbanFaith.com or Urban Ministries Inc.