Troubling bill threatens service
Senate Bill 128 would harm church's mission and those it serves
By Kathy Markeland
An oft-quoted adage in Catholic service agencies is that we don't provide services to those in need because they are Catholic, but because we are. That sense of our mission is being challenged in Madison with a proposal that threatens to undermine the values that have inspired Catholic agencies to provide services to the citizens of Wisconsin since the time of statehood.
Senate Bill 128 would mandate health insurance plans in the state to provide coverage for contraceptive articles and services. While Catholics object to mandated contraceptive coverage because of our moral objection to contraception generally and our concerns about the potential abortifacient effect of certain oral contraceptives, the other significant concern with SB 128 is that the narrow religious exemption provided in the bill fails to exempt certain Catholic agencies.
In order to qualify for the exemption, SB 128 forces religious employers to pass the following four-pronged test, which is remarkably chilling in its effect.
A "religious employer" is one for whom:
1. The inculcation of religious values is the purpose of the entity.
2. The entity employs primarily persons who share the religious tenets of the entity.
3. The entity serves primarily persons who share the religious tenets of the entity.
4. The entity is exempt from filing a federal annual information return under specified sections of the Internal Revenue Code.
Catholic health care institutions, universities and even some Catholic Charities agencies would fail this test.
No one would question the religious nature of Mother Teresa's ministry to the dying. Yet such a ministry would fail the test proposed in SB 128, because such services would be provided to all those in need regardless of creed.
Under the bill, in order to be considered a "religious employer" and therefore qualify for an exemption from the mandated contraceptive coverage, an employer must essentially employ and serve only members of his or her own faith community. Period.
That is contrary to the Catholic view of our role in the world. The services that we provide are not tangential to our tradition -- they are integral to fully living our faith. Our ministry cannot be limited to those who share our faith. That is not who we are.
Equally troubling is that the bill makes the state itself responsible for enforcing the criteria and identifying those individuals that "share the religious tenets of an entity" and those who do not. How will the state decide whether an employee shares our religious belief? How will it determine whether those we serve share our faith?
By applying the criteria outlined in SB 128, the state takes on a dangerous role, essentially establishing preferential treatment for religious traditions whose practice does not call them to bring their faith to the public square.
Catholic institutions have a long history of public service in this state. In order to continue in our ministry, government must recognize that our mission to serve is rooted in values that cannot be compromised simply because the state deems that those we employ and those we serve are not "religious" enough.
Our commitment to serve all members of society regardless of their religion or creed is a vital part of what has enabled Catholic institutions to successfully partner with the state in so many areas. It is a partnership that enriches our Wisconsin community. Rather than foster that partnership, SB 128 would destroy it.
(Markeland is associate director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the civil arm of the state's five diocesan bishops.)