Last month, in Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Supreme Court made one of the most significant decisions with respect to religious liberty. In a 9-0 ruling, the court upheld as constitutional the centuries-old ministerial exemption. This decision guarantees that churches and other religious groups retain their freedom both to choose and to dismiss those who hold ministerial positions.
If this decision had not been made, the consequences would have been far-reaching. The government would then have had the right to determine who the ministers of a religion are. Since selecting the ministers means influencing the message, the government would have gained some control over religion.
Since the Obama administration had been working to effectively repeal the centuries-old ministerial exemption, the Supreme Court’s decision was a strong rebuke to the administration. A needed warning, but one not heeded.
The present controversy that has flared up over Obamacare is a case in point. When the Department of Health and Human Services stated that federally mandated health insurance must cover artificial contraception, direct voluntary sterilization and abortifacients (drugs that induce abortions), there was emitted an audible national gasp of disbelief, followed immediately by protest. An issue of religious teaching became a contentious political issue, even though this could have easily been avoided.
There have been 733 waivers or exemptions to the requirements of Obamacare. Not surprisingly, a large number of those being granted these exemptions, such as an influential teachers’ union, are supporters of the president. Even McDonald’s and Jack in the Box have earned exemptions.(cf. Clay Hegar, “The Continuing Injustice of Obamacare Waivers,” American Thinker, August 9, 2011). Why not an exemption to Obamacare that guarantees religious freedom?
Like many priests around the nation, Catholic military chaplains were asked by their bishop to read to their congregations a letter stating why the Church cannot and will not comply with this new ruling. Not now! Not even after the one-year grace period!
Some military officials were not happy about the letter. In fact, the Army’s Office of the Chief of Chaplains informed senior chaplains that, since the letter had not been coordinated with their office, it was better not to read it. Eventually, the letter was allowed to be read, but without the line: “We cannot — we will not — comply with this unjust law.”
Asking a priest not to affirm clearly Church teaching on a major moral issue is a mistaken use of authority at the least, if not a gross interference with religion. Is not this the issue at hand in the heated controversy over healthcare coverage between the Church and the present administration? The free exercise of religion: this is what is at stake.
Some in politics and in the media are trying to distract us from this fundamental issue. In support of the government’s position, they center their arguments simply on artificial birth control. They turn to statistics. They argue that, according to a study by the Guttmacher Institute, a significant number of Catholic women use artificial contraception. So, they ask, why, then, are Catholic bishops unanimously speaking out so strongly against the Obama administration’s ruling to include contraception as a mandated inclusion in all health insurance policies?
What is at stake is not whether some Catholics, either out of ignorance, misinformation about Church teaching or defiance, act personally against Church teaching on natural family planning and the right of an unborn child, once conceived, to be born. The Church has always been consistent in her teaching on these issues. These are not new ideas to anyone, not even to our federal government. What is at stake is a deeper issue. Does the state have the right to make a church act against its own teaching?
At his February 10 press conference, the president said that churches would not be required to provide objectionable services. Nonetheless, he remained adamant in upholding mandated contraception for all. Now insurers without exception must provide these services.
After the press conference, many in the media began waving pompoms, cheering the president for having changed his position. Did he de facto make any accommodation to the position of those who stand against his policy on religious grounds? Not really! His so-called “accommodation” is merely a distinction without a difference!
In this “accommodation,” while churches need not pay for these services for their employees, the insurance companies must then provide them for church employees free of charge. Really? Does anyone really think that insurance companies are not going to pass on the cost to the ones paying for the policy, i.e. the Church and other religious groups?
What about dioceses, such as our own, and church-affiliated hospitals and charities who self-insure? Where do they fit in? They are still required to pay for the mandated services. Likewise from what has been publicly said, student health plans offered by religious colleges and universities must also provide the objectionable coverage.
The government’s attempt to limit exemptions only to churches and houses of worship raises serious concern. The government has one policy for churches and houses of worship and yet another for “non-exempt” religious organizations, such as charities and hospitals. In effect, the government is creating its own definitions of who is “religious enough” for full protection against the mandate.
The direction is being set for an ever-increasing curtailment of religious liberty. Even small business owners with religious objections to abortion-inducing drugs and contraception must still pay. The choice has not changed. Either violate the law or violate your conscience.
Perhaps, after the administration’s hastily called press conference to contain the political fallout of the controversy, the president and his advisers should think through the question of religious liberty with greater precision and respect for freedom. At the present moment, nothing in what the president has announced in his “accommodation” changes the fact that the government is still mandating individuals and institutions to pay for and provide what is contrary to their religious teaching.
Accepting this ruling means that the Church must now finance what she has always and everywhere taught as wrong. The Church has only two alternatives. Either she does what the government says and loses all moral authority to teach. Or she refuses to comply and says what Peter and the other apostles had said at the very beginning of the Church’s history, “We must obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29).
The Catholic Church has a two-thousand-year-old tradition. Undoubtedly, she stands as the most visible teacher of objective moral norms. It should not be surprising, therefore, that she comes under attack by others who do not adhere to her teaching. But it is surprising that this could happen with such disregard and abandon by any administration in America. To demand that the Catholic Church act in defiance of her own consistent teaching is un-American!
On October 4, 2011, at a fundraiser in St. Louis, President Obama bragged about his plan to mandate contraceptive coverage for all in his new health care bill. This past January, after high level discussions to explain the deeper issue involved, he decided to stay his course. Most recently, even after a storm of controversy, he keeps his hand on the helm and will not change direction. Is this ignorance about the deeper issue about religious liberty? Or is it something else?
The president’s “accommodation” seems to be nothing more than a classic legerdemain! Are we to be taken in by this “sleight of hand”? A change in accounting, not in principle! Now, religious liberty is even more at stake!