News reports of the targeting of conservative groups by the IRS, the government’s handling of the terrorist attack on our diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya and the seizure of AP reporters’ phone records by the Justice Department have plunged President Obama’s administration into a maelstrom of controversy. Partisan discussions of the issues have raised many questions that remain unanswered. A feeling of uneasiness about the intrusion of government where it does not belong now permeates the political dialogue in America.
However, the constant banter about these scandals on TV and radio news shows has taken the focus away from a more devastating and pernicious decision of the present administration. About a year ago, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued its Preventive Services Rule. Commonly known as the HHS Mandate, this federal ruling forces employers to subsidize coverage of sterilization and contraception, as well as abortion-inducing drugs such as “Ella” (Ulipristal).
On February 15, 2012, the Obama Administration proposed an extremely narrow exemption for religious employers. Only those religious employers who primarily served individuals having the same religious beliefs would be exempt from providing the objectionable services. According to this ruling, there is no exemption for Catholic charities, universities or hospitals. All these institutions serve thousands of individuals who are not Catholic and do not share the beliefs of the Catholic Church.
Unfortunately, the March 21 “Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking,” of the administration has left the original mandate unaltered. Thus, religious employers do not merit the right to follow the moral teaching of their own faith on sterilization, contraception and abortion. And, if they do not comply with the mandate, the government will be penalizing them for serving people of all faiths or of no faith at all. Is this not a dangerous overreach of government, taking away the charitable works of religious groups?
In simple terms, the HHS mandate forces religious insurers to act against their religious beliefs. It demands religious employers, hospitals and schools to subsidize coverage that violates their conscience. It coerces individuals to pay for insurance not consistent with their religious convictions.
The issue is not a “Catholic issue.” In February of last year, there was a congressional hearing on this issue. A distinguished Orthodox rabbi, the President of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and officials and professors from several Protestant institutions of higher learning all spoke against the mandate. The fundamental issue is not about contraception or sterilization or abortion.
Yes, the Church teaches that abortion is the taking of the innocent life of a child waiting to be born and it is gravely sinful. Yes, the Church teaches that direct voluntary sterilization and contraception are morally evil. But the underlying issue in the healthcare debate is not about the Church forcing others not to use contraception or have an abortion or be sterilized. On the contrary!
is the government overreaching its legitimate authority to coerce the Church, religious institutions and individuals to act against their conscience by funding and providing such practices.
At stake is our First Amendment freedom to exercise religion without government interference. This freedom is valued by Catholics and non-Catholics, believers and non-believers, Democrats and Republicans. It is even valued by those who have no moral qualms about contraception, sterilization and abortion. This present administration’s limited and totally innovative definition of what constitutes an exempt religious entity is an unprecedented overreach by the federal government into what constitutes religion.
Recently, a Catholic agency that had provided outstanding service to victims of human trafficking lost its federal grant money. Why? Simply because it would not provide abortions and other morally objectionable procedures for these victims. We can well imagine what lies ahead for Catholic health care professionals under the new health insurance mandate.
Penalties for non-compliance with the new health plan regulations will be hefty. Individuals who refuse to carry the mandated insurance will face a penalty starting at $95 a year or up to 1% of a person's income, whichever is greater. Any company or institution that does not provide the mandated coverage will face penalties of up to $2,000 per employee per year.
Imagine the effect of these penalties on a Catholic hospital or Catholic Charities with thousands of employees. What is the alternative? Comply and violate one’s conscience or go out of business. St. Joseph’s Hospital in Paterson, New Jersey, serves over 1.3 million people, with special care for the poor and needy. What would happen if this Catholic hospital would have to face the proposed penalties?
Rep. Diane Black (R-TN) and over a hundred other members of Congress of both parties are now sponsoring the Health Care Conscience Rights Act (H.R. 940). This legislation would provide for a conscience clause in the health care reform law. Employers, insurers, institutions and individuals would not be faced with the alternative of either violating their conscience or forfeiting their health insurance. Every American concerned about the loss of religious freedom in this country needs to speak against the pernicious effects of the HHS mandate and urge their representatives in Washington to preserve freedom of religion for all.
Now is the time to contact our representatives in Congress. Either by phone, letter or email, we can urge them to protect our freedom of conscience by including H.R. 940 in “must pass” legislation. For more information, see:
The federal government has set August 1, 2013 as the deadline for religious organizations to comply with the HHS mandate. Time is running out.