So we’ve been “accommodated,” have we? Buried under an avalanche of protest (the USCCB Web site records that 57,000 letters were sent to the administration from its campaign alone), the federal government is willing to exempt employers directly from providing contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortofacients to our employees, but will instead require the insurance companies we contract with to do our “work” for us.
Now, I don’t know about you, but that raises a number of questions in my mind:
1. Who pays the insurance companies? The employer? The employee? The U.S. government? Who pays the government?
In their Feb. 10 response to President Obama, the U.S. bishops stated: “The mandate would impose a burden of unprecedented reach and severity on the consciences of those who consider such ‘services’ immoral: insurers forced to write policies including this coverage; employers and schools forced to sponsor and subsidize the coverage; and individual employees and students forced to pay premiums for the coverage. We therefore urged HHS, if it insisted on keeping the mandate, to provide a conscience exemption for all of these stakeholders—not just the extremely small subset of ‘religious employers’ that HHS proposed to exempt initially.”
2. Does this accommodation extend also to for-profit employers who have personal, religious objections to the HHS mandate? If not, on what basis?
3. How does this affect self-insured institutions?
To quote the bishops’ statement again: “[W]e note at the outset that the lack of clear protection for key stakeholders—for self-insured religious employers; for religious and secular for-profit employers; for secular non-profit employers; for religious insurers; and for individuals—is unacceptable and must be corrected.”
4. Who decides who qualifies as a religious, and therefore exempt, institution?
This last question reveals perhaps the most insidious aspect of this issue. In many European countries, religions and religious institutions are licensed as social organizations and so, exist, assemble, and act as such only with the permission of the State. The U.S. is radically different. Since the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1787, they have been seen as autonomous, that is, independent of the State. Those who drafted the Constitution viewed religion as “wholly exempt” from civil governance. This is precisely what is under attack in the present controversy.
Can this issue keep producing the steam that will move the rights of all Americans forward? The following points are not exactly a strategy, but they can still provide insight for those who might map one out.
Not just in-house
We would best avoid the mistake many of us made with Roe v. Wade. This is not an exclusively Catholic issue, but one that radically strikes at how religious institutions of any persuasion can minister freely. Many will try to marginalize us over this, but it is up to us to untiringly cast it in ecumenical and interreligious terms.
USA Today published an editorial making this very point, and in fact broadened its scope by setting it as a civil rights issue, irrespective of religious affiliation. One Internet commentator on the article stated that if the government can trample on the rights “of those we don’t like,” imagine what it could do to the rest of us! When I stopped laughing, I admitted that not only is it not illegal to despise people of faith, but her point was well made: Sooner or later this issue will affect us all.
Along with the U.S. bishops, the official organizations of Evangelicals, Orthodox Jews, Lutherans of the Missouri Synod, and Orthodox Bishops have already spoken up on behalf of America’s religious institutions. If this revolved around security legislation, for example, requiring Muslim employers to fingerprint job applicants and run background checks on them, those who are hotly defending the administration’s latest infringement on religious freedom would be the first to cry foul, regardless of religious or partisan preferences. Come to think of it, has anybody heard how the ACLU stands on the ruling?
What’s in a name?
We need to maintain that it is a matter, not of women’s health or reproductive rights, but as it in fact is—a matter of the right to the free exercise of religion. The media are already calling it a “contraception rule” and “birth control mandate”; we should not. If people perceive that this issue is about women’s rights, we could lose vital support even among Catholics. “HHS mandate” or “health care mandate” has a better chance of uniting us, regardless of where people stand on birth control. Yes, it would be great if we were all on the same page doctrinally, but we’re not, and to garner support from all believers of whatever religious affiliation, we would do well to emphasize respect for our First Amendment rights.
In addition, by not limiting it to birth control, the far-reaching effects of the administration’s coercive ruling become more apparent. If it remains, it will set a precedent for other controversial issues in the public square and for the educational requirements expected of religious schools: euthanasia, gay “marriage,” legitimizing prostitution, the pastoral care of undocumented immigrants….That’s just for starters.
Nor is it only a matter of freedom of conscience apart from the First Amendment. Our refuge is in our insistence on our Constitutional right to freedom of religion and freedom of speech.
We shouldn’t allow the administration and the media to portray us as unreasonable because we’re inflexible about protecting our rights as Americans who also happen to be people with faith convictions. To toss us in the corner with the so-called “religious right” would be a caricature, that justifies dismissing us and our concerns. As Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan said in an interview with NCR’s Vatican correspondent John Allen, the bishops are not “Obama haters.”
We Catholic employers want to be left free to determine what insurance coverage we offer to our employees, who, by the way, work with us by their choice. The present administration has now mandated that we include coverage of what is repugnant to us. Who is imposing views and beliefs on whom? (See a superb op-ed column in USA Today by Richard Garnett of Notre Dame University.) As USCCB media relations director Sr. Mary Ann Walsh acidly remarked, “When you go to a Jewish deli, you are not expecting pork chops.”
The bishops point out that we will apply for a legal exemption if the federal government will not rescind the mandate. Ask President Obama: As a Constitutional law professor, he knows that this is routinely done. The latest one was the recent Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC case. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court, basing itself on a legal doctrine known as the “ministerial exception,” recognized the right of religious organizations to hire and fire their clergy and other employees without government intrusion. Churches are exempt from these laws that apply in the secular workplace.
We would be well advised not couch this in terms of “defending the Church,” even though we may take justifiable pride as we speak out on her behalf. Allowing ourselves to be put on the defensive is no way to arrive at truth and right. Besides, polemics are distasteful to many; look at voters’ attitude toward mudslinging in politics.
I don’t normally read comments to articles or blogs. I’ve made an exception here. Facebook also gives me a taste of how people are reacting. My sense as I read comments is that Catholics are tired of being pummeled in the arena. Some are spoiling for a fight. The temptation is to lash out in kind. I notice passion among believers, but most are avoiding the ignorant accusations and unjustified vitriol spewed by others who either misunderstand or disagree with the objections of people of faith. A helpful, almost cheery, insight in this regard can be found in the NCR interview I already mentioned. Timothy Dolan soberly acknowledged the tenuous nature of our current relationship with President Obama’s administration, but his basic message seemed to be: Debate, argue, protest, object, but for as long as we can, let’s not fight.
Saber rattling may be more romantic than non-violence, but if we can achieve the same results without verbal abuse, we’ll have a chance at becoming the disciples of Christ we claim to be. Let’s not stoop to the level of those who don’t know the meaning of respect. This is not a time to be “clever,” but faithful and responsible citizens.
Keeping it central
Fortuitously this firestorm didn’t originate with us; we’re responding to a federal mandate. If we can keep the controversy and its solutions on that level, either through legislation and/or a Supreme Court decision, a more unified and effective effort is likely. There’s strength in numbers. If it’s left to the states to decide, the “militant secularist” agenda (Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon’s description) will have a greater chance to prevail. No statewide conferences of Catholic bishops have the resources or prestige of the USCCB to mount a sustained opposition to violation after violation of First Amendment rights.
“We will therefore continue—with no less vigor, no less sense of urgency—our efforts to correct this problem through the other two branches of government. For example, we renew our call on Congress to pass, and the Administration to sign, the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act. And we renew our call to the Catholic faithful, and to all our fellow Americans, to join together in this effort to protect religious liberty and freedom of conscience for all” (USCCB statement of Feb. 10).
How many people are actually concerned about this? Are we in fact the sleeping giant that one article described? At best, people worry about other things like keeping their jobs and getting their kids through college. At worst, they can be apathetic. Religious liberty just isn’t on their radar screen. Sure, they say, let the bishops worry about it; that’s their job.
One lesson we can draw from this is that, when organized and committed, we can make a difference. We don’t have to take what’s dished out to us. Taking our cue from the bishops and working with other organizations, churches, and congregations will give us a unified voice.
Another benefit, if we have the eyes to see is the opportunity to hold the kind of conversation we as a people need to have about the separation of Church and State and the religious presence in political life. It’s long overdue. In his article just published in America magazine, “Finding Common Ground: The opportunity in a painful moment,” Blase J. Cupich, the bishop of Spokane, WA, makes this very point. Not only could such a conversation bridge differences, but more fundamentally, it would help us to clarify for ourselves what it is that our freedoms are built on and to delineate the role of religion in the public arena.
“Keeping religion out of politics is an impossible condition. All political entities are either based upon faith-based religion or a secular religion, usually with the State or Leader as godhead. Removing faith-based religion ends up with a secular religion, and vice-versa....[P]olitics cannot escape the human condition. There will always be some form of religion in politics. Some form of balance between the two competing religious ideals must be achieved for a liberal society; any attempt to eradicate one or both will result in a totalitarian polity” (Micah Haber on Peter Redpath’s Facebook wall, 2/11/2012).
The call to conversion
In the coming election—in any election, for that matter—the economy is not the #1 factor to consider. Human life and all that supports its dignity comes first. We need to grow in our trust in God, as the money we handle reminds us. The conversion to trust means marshalling the creativity, energy, and resources we have at hand to better our human condition, knowing, however, that in the end, we put God’s law first. It means not being arrogant about what we’ve achieved, shedding the attitude of entitlement that makes us rebel against adversity or sacrifice. God does not owe us. The world does not owe us: If we have not obliterated global hunger and disease, or achieved international peace, or preserved the earth’s resources for future generations, then the world definitely does not owe us.
Prayer is essential if we are to maintain our priorities. If we want to succeed at changing anything, nothing can be done without the grace of God that comes through prayer and fasting, whether from food or from “following our own pursuits” as the prophet Isaiah put it. We may rightly feel that this is a David and Goliath undertaking, but that we’re consigned to simply watch from the sidelines. Nothing could be further from the truth. Can we take just a few minutes to send government a message? Now? Then keep abreast of events as they develop. And keep your friends informed! Without being “in their face,” share what you come across. Their openness may surprise you.
Click here in support of the bishops’ campaign urging Congress to pass the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, H.R. 1179 and S. 1467.