US Churches unite against Obama over religious liberty

US Churches unite against Obama over religious liberty

Babette Francis

President Obama did not intend it, but his decision via a Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate to impose on religious colleges, schools, charities and hospitals the obligation to cover contraception, sterilisation and abortifacient pills in insurance for employees has had the effect of unifying church leaders across denominations and social and fiscal conservatives in the Republican Party, including the four still vying to be the Republican nominee for the Presidential election in November: Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul.

Under the HHS rule only religious groups that solely hire and serve members of their own religion are allowed an exemption from providing such insurance. Any entity that serves persons in need, regardless of that person's religion - which means every religious hospital, adoption agency, and school in the United States - would be forced to provide contraception, sterilisation, and abortifacient pills coverage to their employees.

In response to the outspoken objections of all 181 Catholic bishops of the US, as well as church leaders including Evangelicals, Southern Baptists and Jews, President Obama offered a "compromise": the religious institutions would not themselves have to cover contraception, sterilisation and abortifacients but their insurance companies would be required to provide these for free!

Besides being an unprecedented government imposition on private companies, this did not resolve the Churches' conscientious objections: not only would they still be paying, albeit indirectly through increased premiums, but their objection to these services was not based on costs but on moral grounds.

Religious liberty

The Catholic Church either has to violate its own moral beliefs or it can decline to provide health coverage for its employees and face millions of dollars in fines and possible bankruptcy. Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, says the writing is on the wall: "There can no longer be any doubt that religious liberty in our country is in jeopardy."

The 11 January 2012 US Supreme Court decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission should have given President Obama pause for thought: it is one of the most important Religion Clause cases of the last fifty years.

A teacher dismissed by the Hosanna-Tabor school appealed against her dismissal through the EEOC. In their unanimous decision, hailed as a victory for religious liberty, the Supreme Court justices upheld the "ministerial exception" that permits religious groups to make employment decisions without government interference.

Despite the Hosanna-Tabor decision, Obama - egged on by anti-life agencies Planned Parenthood and the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) - would not relent on the provision of contraception-sterilisation-abortifacients to all Church institution employees.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney announced: "We obviously believe this to be constitutional" and that religious institutions have a year to comply. However, several states, institutions and organisations, including Priests for Life, have filed legal cases against the HHS mandate.

By mandating that private insurance companies provide free contraception for all Americans, the Obama administration has expanded federal control over both private insurance companies and religious institutions in an extraordinary way. Dick Morris, political commentator and pollster, revealed that White House strategists, realising that being pro-abortion was no longer a winning issue for President Obama's re-election, decided to shift the debate to contraception - but instead have shifted it to religious liberty.

The Family Research Council released a letter in February signed by over 2,500 pastors and evangelical leaders protesting the Obama administration's birth control insurance mandate. "This is not a Catholic issue," FRC President Tony Perkins said. "We will not tolerate any denomination having their religious freedom infringed upon by the government."

Constitution

Richard Land, president, Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said: "What our forefathers protected is freedom of conscience, freedom of religion. That is, the freedom to propagate our faith, to take our faith outside the walls of our home, outside the walls of our church and to have Catholic and Baptist charities, hospitals and schools ... educate within a worldview that is Catholic or Baptist or Lutheran ... we are not going to sit by and allow our God-given rights - which are acknowledged, recognised and protected by the Constitution - to be atrophied, to be neutered and confined and restricted by the Obama administration."

Not to be outdone, Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, in hearings before the House Committee, drew an analogy between Jewish opposition to the consumption of pork and Catholic opposition to contraception. "[Imagine if] a new law was proposed, so that any business that serves food must serve pork. There is a narrow exception for kosher catering halls attached to synagogues, since they serve mostly members of that synagogue, but kosher delicatessens are still subject to the mandate.

"The Orthodox Jewish community - whose members run kosher delis and many other restaurants and grocers besides - expresses its outrage at the new government mandate. And they are joined by others who have no problem eating pork - not just the many Jews who eat pork, but people of all faiths - because these others recognise the threat to the principle of religious liberty ...".

With his HHS mandate on contraception, sterilisation and abortifacients, President Obama may have bitten off more than he can chew - and it isn't pork.

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