5th Oct 2012

Stand Together for Religious Liberty

by Kim Daniels

This year, everyday Catholics woke up to find their religious freedom under threat.

For years we took for granted the broad consensus favoring a robust conception of religious liberty. We assumed that our government would continue its long tradition of support for strong conscience protections for religious believers. But this year our complacency ended. There can be no longer be any doubt that religious freedom is in retreat, and that Catholics need to stand up and stand together in its defense.

Consider the repercussions from what’s happened over the past few years. Pharmacists have faced legislative efforts to force them to provide “emergency contraception,” even if they believe that by doing so they’re participating in the taking of a human life. Hospitals have directed nurses to participate in abortions or risk losing their jobs. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Migration and Refugee Services  — a top-rated service provider to the victims of human trafficking  — lost funding from the Department of Health and Human Services because it did not provide the “full range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care”  — in other words, abortion and contraception. And Catholic adoption agencies from Illinois to Boston to Washington, D.C., were forced to close their doors because they wanted to live by their belief that children do best with a mother and a father.

But the real wake-up call came with the Department of Health and Human Services mandate. As part of the Affordable Care Act, HHS mandated that almost all employers provide full coverage for certain “preventive services”, including contraceptives, some abortion-causing drugs, and sterilizations. Those who refuse — even because of good-faith religious objections — will face crippling fines.
This mandate not only constitutes an unprecedented effort to coerce individuals and organizations into purchasing something in violation of their conscience, it also puts government in the business of defining what counts as religious ministry. Only an extremely narrow class of religious organizations — houses of worship that primarily serve and employ members of their own religion — are exempt from the mandate. This cramped understanding of religion forces our large networks of Catholic schools and hospitals and social service agencies to choose between violating their consciences and facing budget-busting fines.

Although the administration gave private assurances to Catholic leaders that traditional, common-sense conscience protections would be incorporated into the HHS mandate, nothing of the kind occurred. Instead certain religious groups were given a one-year “safe harbor” — or, as Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York put it, they were given “a year to figure out how to violate [their] consciences.”

After this idea was almost universally panned by critics left and right, the administration took another stab. Although it left the mandate on the books without change, HHS suggested that at some point in the future insurers might provide the objectionable coverage to policyholders directly and for free. This next effort to kick the can down the road was widely rejected as an accounting gimmick: Religious employers would still be facilitating access to products and procedures that violate their beliefs, their premium streams would still be paying for them, and there was still no answer for lay employers or self-insured groups, including many archdioceses. Most importantly, the narrow religious exemption remained a part of the law, “defining religion down” and serving as a possible template for future efforts to limit religious believers’ ability to live their faith.

Catholics have demonstrated remarkable unity in standing against this coercive mandate and standing up for religious freedom. Sister Carol Keehan of the Catholic Health Association, a staunch supporter of President Obama and the Affordable Care Act, rejected the administration’s compromise and said it had failed to resolve religious-liberty concerns. Former Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak — a key vote for passage of the Affordable Care Act — said the mandate “violates the law and violates the executive order” that he brokered to secure support for the Affordable Care Act from pro-life House Democrats. And a host of Catholic institutions large and small — from the Archdiocese of New York to Resurrection Catholic School in Pascagoula, Miss. — have filed coordinated lawsuits across the country challenging the mandate.

Catholics in-the-pews are standing with the Church as well. According to a recent poll by The Catholic Association, 72 percent of regular Mass-attending Catholics think that “religious charitable institutions should not be forced by the government to provide or pay for goods and services they morally object to.” And some 67 percent of regular Mass-attending Catholics think the administration has gone too far in its restrictions on religious freedom.

Those of us who recognize the HHS mandate as an attack on religious liberty need to make our voices heard. We need to write to our political leaders and to the media; we need to participate in rallies for religious freedom; we need to educate our friends and neighbors; and we need to make religious freedom our priority in the voting booth. We have a responsibility to stand up for the ground-level charities, schools, and hospitals that will be most affected by the fines the mandate imposes.

These groups that educate our children and serve the poor and care for the sick are simply asking for the freedom to serve others consistent with their Catholic faith. That’s a freedom we can no longer take for granted, and we must stand together in its defense if we hope to see it thrive once more.

Kim Daniels is Director of Catholic Voices USA and an attorney whose practice has focused on rights of conscience in health care.

(The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Catholic Pulse or the Knights of Columbus.)