17th Jul 2012

Outrage Against the Machine

As implementation date for HHS mandate approaches, it's time to step up outcry over conscience-rights threats.

by Kathryn Jean Lopez 

“Many people of good will, regardless of their religious traditions or political affiliations, consider the HHS mandate to be a gross affront to the very essence of what it means to be an American,” Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., said at a recent bipartisan forum on religious liberty at Georgetown University.

Just as the Supreme Court was issuing its ruling on the individual mandate in President Obama’s Affordable Care Act last month, Fortenberry, a Georgetown alum, made the case for religious liberty on a campus that has been prominent in the confusion over what exactly the controversy over the president’s health-care law in this regard is all about.

Fortenberry introduced conscience-protection legislation in the House of Representatives back in March 2011, almost a year before the Department of Health and Human Services issued its mandate requiring all employer health plans to offer contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs. His bill, the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, currently has 224 sponsors. The HHS mandate, slated for implementation on Aug. 1, remains unchanged in the wake of the recent Supreme Court ruling.

“This legislation restores the rights of conscience to their proper place in the health-care economy long enshrined in law and practice,” Fortenberry said of his bill during the forum, stressing an important point about the bipartisan nature of conscience protection. “This legislation restores the operative ethical norm that has prevailed in our culture for generations. In fact, the language is similar to that proposed by Hillary Clinton in the 1990s, and by Sen. Ted Kennedy, and signed into law by President Clinton. A strong bipartisan consensus for conscience rights carried through the 1990s and beyond.”

This fact is often ignored, perhaps particularly in recent days during renewed tributes to the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who was an original sponsor of the health-care legislation in the Senate. Shortly after the Supreme Court decision was announced, Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi proclaimed that she “knew that when he left us he would go to heaven and help pass the bill.” The former speaker of the House added: “And now he can rest in peace. His dream for America’s families has become a reality.”

The HHS mandate, explained Fortenberry at Georgetown, “flies in the face of this longstanding bipartisan health-care tradition. No American should be forced to violate their conscience to serve the public. From the faith-based hospital, to the business person providing coverage to employees, to the school established for children with special needs, no American should be forced to choose between her faith and her job.”

But this debate over religious liberty we’re engaged in has sources in U.S. history deeper than Ted Kennedy or Hillary Clinton. George Washington considered religion an “indispensible support” to democracy, as he put it in his Farewell Address. Fortenberry asked: “How could we, in the span of a few short years, become so dulled to our first freedom, the freedom of religion, and the core principle of conscience rights from which that freedom flows?”
Fortenberry’s legislation was brought to a vote in the Senate, where it was sponsored by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., on March 1. It failed. The ill-timed vote came shortly after a media firestorm surrounding disingenuous reporting of House hearings and the sudden celebrity of a student-activist supporter of the HHS mandate at Georgetown’s law school.

In a speech on the House floor in February, House Speaker John Boehner said: “If the president does not reverse the Department’s attack on religious freedom, then the Congress, acting on behalf of the American people and the Constitution we are sworn to uphold and defend, must.” He added: “This attack by the federal government on religious freedom in our country must not stand, and will not stand.” There’s a will there in Congress--and those who have taken leadership roles on this should be thanked. (They sure do hear from the other side: Because of that floor speech, Speaker Boehner has been accused by The New York Times of leading a war on women.)
Since the failed Senate vote, awareness and momentum have been building for robust conscience protection. The so-called accommodation announced by the White House was not that, as even its former ally on the health-care bill, the Catholic Health Association, has made clear. When registered voters were asked in a poll commissioned by the Catholic Association whether the government has the right to mandate morally objectionable medical coverage on religious institutions, 57 percent said no. And, as a memo on the poll points out, “Those numbers remained high for women, with 54 percent of women under 45, and 58 percent of women 45 and older, disagreeing.” The findings track with New York Times polling.

In his homily opening the Fortnight for Freedom, the 14-day period leading up to Independence Day that Catholic bishops designated for prayer and fasting, Baltimore Archbishop William Lori said: “Religious freedom includes the freedom of individuals to act in accord with their faith but also the freedom of church institutions to act in accord with their teachings and to serve as a buffer between the power of the state and the freedom of the individual conscience.” In an interview in Rome, he told the National Catholic Register: “Religious freedom is first compromised by intolerance, and if we simply let it pass, allow the government to say, ‘You were tolerable only if you define yourself as a worshipping community, only if you define it as freedom of worship, but you are not tolerable otherwise,’ then we are simply heading towards the road of real religious persecution, of really becoming fatally compromised in our ability to speak freely and act freely. So I think it’s important to try to nip it in the bud.”

News stories tried to paint the Fortnight and every word spoken on the matter by Catholic bishops as political, but the events involved Mass and Eucharistic adoration, along with education about history; nothing of the political-rally sort. Education—and an outcry from voters—is exactly what the House needs in the wake of the abysmal press coverage following initial House hearings on the mandate and the failed Senate vote.

With lawsuits from small businessmen, archdioceses, and schools (including my alma mater, the Catholic University of America; the University of Notre Dame; and Geneva College, a Presbyterian school in Pennsylvania) pending across the country, it remains unclear what will happen when the HHS mandate kicks in next month. Employers may begin to feel the burden, depending on their budgeting schedules. There could be an injunction to postpone implementation; the administration could confuse matters more by carving out an insufficient compromise, as they have pretended to do already. Legislators like Boehner and Fortenberry look for possible protections.

But that we are at this point is an outrage. And if you value religious freedom, here and abroad, be alarmed, and be talking about it. The civic stakes in these coming months are much higher than party politics.

The future of religious liberty is in our hands. Its erosion is the price of civic indifference.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist. She speaks frequently on faith and public life. 

(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.)