HHS ruling violates religious freedom

By | February 2, 2012

The church’s mission of serving God’s people, which transcends religious affiliation, is now facing a challenge in the United States. One that pits its tradition of social teaching against its moral teaching.

On Jan. 20, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced that religious organizations could not opt out of a requirement that all health plans cover all FDA-approved contraceptive drugs and devices, as well as surgical sterilization — services that that the Catholic Church deems morally objectionable and in violation of religious beliefs.

Health plans offered by religious employers would have to cover these services for free without co-pays and regardless of whether the insurer, employer or employee objects to this coverage.

Last year, when HHS announced its interim plans to include contraceptives and sterilization in mandated services for women under the new health reform law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, it promised an exemption for religious employers. However, as John Huebscher, executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, points out in his column on page 15, the exemption turned out to be “so narrow that few, if any, Catholic agencies that provide health insurance or purchase it for their employees will qualify.”

The HHS defined a religious employer as one that:

• Has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose;

• Primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets;

• Primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets;

• And is a non-profit organization.

Since Catholic agencies serve and employ non-Catholics, they do not qualify as religious employers under these guidelines. Church leaders were hoping that the latest HHS ruling would modify these guidelines and allow for a moral conscience clause.

Months before this controversy arose, President Barack Obama addressed the topic of a “sensible conscience clause” during a commencement address at the University of Notre Dame in 2009. Holy Cross Fr. John Jenkins, university president, had been criticized by many Catholics for allowing President Obama to address graduates. However, it was at this commencement that the president offered encouraging words on the topic of religious conscience:

“Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women.”

This statement now seems to contradict his administration’s latest directive.

While we can laud the president and his administration for seeking affordable health care, doing so by mandating rules that violate religious freedom and force people of faith to defy their moral conscience is wrong.

Many Americans may see this as a “Catholic” issue because it involves opposition to contraceptives. But it is about more than opposing birth control. It involves religious liberty, which is a constitutional guarantee.

The First Amendment prevents the government from interfering with the free exercise of religion. However, as it stands now, the HHS ruling invalidates the religious freedom of millions of U.S. citizens. For this reason, all Americans should vocally oppose it.

Much more than insurance coverage for contraceptives is at stake here. Prohibiting the free exercise of religion is at stake.

To paraphrase Cardinal Keeler, religious freedom gives Catholic institutions the right to educate, feed and clothe people in need — not because they are Catholic, but because we are Catholic. Religious freedom should also give Catholic institutions the right follow conscience on church moral teachings.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is asking citizens to contact their congressional representatives and ask them to support a Respect for Rights of Conscience Act. For details go to www.usccb.org/conscience.

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