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My View: A call to duty for religious liberty

  • By
  • | 4:00 a.m. May 16, 2012
  • Longboat Key
  • Opinion
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God bless the Rev. Michael Graham, and pity the poor souls who petition against him.

The decision of Xavier University’s president to cease health-insurance coverage for contraceptives and sterilization falls squarely within the more than 400-year mission of the Jesuits to propagate and strengthen the Catholic faith.

The Rev. Graham’s detractors are squarely in the mainstream of those bent on secularizing America’s Catholic colleges and universities.

Let’s put this in context. This debate is but one skirmish in defense of what is shaping up as a historic assault on religious liberty in America.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has mandated that Catholic institutions, including colleges and universities, provide health-insurance coverage for contraception, sterilization and abortifacients (abortion-inducing drugs), products and services prohibited under basic tenets of the faith. America’s Catholic bishops believe that the mandate violates the right of free exercise of religion, as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

To minimize the issue as solely a battle over women’s rights, many proponents of the mandate have misrepresented the bishops’ stance as opposition to access to free contraceptives, when the true issue is whether the mandate unconstitutionally violates the right to religious liberty.

Catholic institutions, in the absence of court protection or meaningful modification of the mandate by the Obama administration, have three choices: 1) observe the mandate and violate church doctrine; 2) violate the mandate and risk grave financial penalties; or 3) go out of business.

Court protection may come from one of many pending lawsuits, but the most effective lawsuit may be the challenge to Obamacare now in the U.S. Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court strikes down the entire Obamacare statute in June, presumably the HHS mandate will fail for lack of statutory authorization.

Meaningful modification by the administration of the mandate is possible but uncertain. On March 21, the administration issued a notice of proposed rulemaking that might lead to an accommodation for religious organizations, while insuring the availability of contraceptive coverage through third parties without cost sharing for plan participants and beneficiaries. The comment period on the proposed rulemaking ends June 19.

In an extraordinary step, the bishops have selected the option to violate the mandate and risk grave financial penalties. They have denounced the mandate as an “unjust law” that Catholics and their institutions are required to disobey.

In the statement, the bishops assert that the federal government’s effort to force religious institutions to fund a product or service contrary to their own moral teachings and its purporting to define which “religious institutions” are “religious enough” to merit protection of their religious liberty amount to an unjust law.

The bishops said further that: “It is a sobering thing to contemplate our government enacting an unjust law. An unjust law cannot be obeyed … if we face today the prospect of unjust laws, then Catholics in America, in solidarity with our fellow citizens, must have the courage not to obey them. No American desires this. No Catholic welcomes it. But if it should fall upon us, we must discharge it as a duty of citizenship and an obligation of faith.”

This, therefore, is a matter of great consequence to Americans of all religious denominations. If our government can dictate the fundamental beliefs of a religion, our cherished First Amendment guarantee of religious liberty has been stricken by executive fiat and government, in violation of the same amendment, is effectively establishing religion.

When protests first arose over the HHS mandate, President Obama announced a “compromise” based on a requirement that insurers would have to cover the cost of the objectionable products and services. Because of the likelihood that the insurers would simply pass the cost on to employers in increased premiums and because many Catholic institutions are self-insured, for practical purposes all employers may have the burden of the cost of the coverage and the “compromise” is sleight of hand and no compromise at all.

Another administration argument is that, notwithstanding the mandate, Catholics will have freedom of worship, that is, the ability to go to Mass on Sunday or pray the rosary at home. The bishops, in their statement, point out that religious liberty is much more than that. It is the ability to do the good works the faith calls their flock to do without having to compromise that faith.

Finally, rather than broadly exempt from the mandate all religious institutions whose doctrine is violated by the mandate, the administration narrowly defines a religious institution as one that primarily employs and serves people of its own faith, a test that obviously disqualifies most Catholic colleges, universities, hospitals and social service agencies.

The bishops’ statement calls for an all-out campaign against the HHS mandate, including the dedication of the 14 days beginning June 21 as a “fortnight for freedom,” a special period of prayer, study, catechesis and public action.

The bishops’ extraordinary and courageous statement, combined with action steps that include contacting our federal representatives, emphasizes the seriousness of the HHS assault on freedom of religion. The bishops are calling all who are people of faith, regardless of denomination, to active duty.

We can either reject the call and suffer government control of our faith, or we can report for duty and bear moral arms against a serious assault on our religious liberty.

The Rev. Graham already has answered the call. Good for him.

Edmund Adams is a Longboat Key resident and graduate of Xavier University and the University of Notre Dame Law School.



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