Federal mandates and the crushing of religious freedom

On Jan. 20th, 2012 the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a mandate placing first amendment rights and religious freedom in the crosshairs.

The mandate, as a provision of ObamaCare, requires "preventive health services" to be covered by all health insurance issuers and all group health plans. Those insurance plans must provide (with no co-pay) the full range of Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved contraceptive methods for women. These include not only surgical sterilizations, but also potential abortion-causing agents such as Plan B (the morning-after pill), intrauterine devices (IUDs) and another form of "emergency contraception" known as Ella. This drug, which the FDA acknowledges may also work against the life of the embryo "by preventing attachment (implantation) to the uterus," can be taken up to 5 days after "unprotected" sex.

Essentially all employers would thus be forced -- and therefore complicit in -- financially subsidizing pharmaceutical abortions, contraception and sterilization procedures for their employees. All these procedures represent sinful and damaging human choices, as the Catholic Church has never ceased to point out.

The mandate constitutes a direct intrusion into the religious works and governance of the Church and represents a federally-sponsored violation of her members' consciences. The Church, as the largest provider of not-for-profit health care in the US, operates roughly 600 hospitals and employs three quarters of a million people, in addition to employing hundreds of thousands of others in her educational and social service ministries.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago aptly described the authoritarian environment being created by the HHS mandate in one of his recent newspaper columns: "The bishops would love to have the separation between church and state we thought we enjoyed just a few months ago, when we were free to run Catholic institutions in conformity with the demands of the Catholic faith, when the government couldn't tell us which of our ministries are Catholic and which not, when the law protected rather than crushed conscience. The state is making itself into a church."

In the words of another commentator, "As is more and more obvious, ObamaCare has nothing to do with controlling healthcare costs. It has everything to do with government control. It's time to admit a mistake, repeal the law, and look at market-based ways to control health care costs."

Critics of every persuasion have condemned the HHS mandate as a particularly egregious violation both of religious freedom and the rights of conscience. "I side with those who feel this was an insult to freedom of religion and a slap in the face of faith-based institutions," Rabbi Eliot Pearlson of Temple Menorah in Miami Beach said.

Rabbi Dr. Michael Korman of Congregation Anshei Shalom in West Palm Beach concurred: "The entire contraception policy was poorly instituted. It appears to be in violation of our first amendment."

Jessica Devers in a Letter to the Editor of the Wall Street Journal perhaps put it most clearly when she wrote: "I am not Catholic. I am a social liberal and a supporter of Planned Parenthood. I've educated my children about birth control since they were young. Nevertheless, I am offended at the arrogance of our government ruling that the Catholic Church must provide a benefit that the church believes is immoral."

On Feb. 10, after stormy reaction even from President Obama's staunchest Catholic supporters, he announced a so-called "accommodation," which -- as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops quickly explained -- really changed nothing. When the government documents were made available, it became clear that there was no compromise at all but rather some slight procedural modifications that left the substance of the mandate entirely intact.

The day the "accomodation" was announced, in fact, the mandate was entered into the Federal Register with no changes, along with vague assurances of possible modifications at a future date (reminiscint of Speaker Nancy Pelosi's famous line when campaigning for ObamaCare: "We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.")

Philip Rovner in the same issue of the Wall Street Journal sums it up this way: "The ...premise in favor of the birth-control mandate is based on [its] being 'essential to the health of women and families.' I assume such items as food, housing, clothing and transportation are 'essential to the health of women and families,' as well. Therefore, I propose that the ObamaCare mandates be extended to cover food, shelter, clothing, autos, etc. In this scenario, everybody would be paying for everyone else's essentials..."

The real issue, of course, has nothing to do with access to particular "reproductive issues" (like abortion or birth control), and everything to do with whether someone else can be forced by the strong arm of a federal mandate, in direct violation of their religious freedom, to pay for practices they recognize as morally reprehensible.

Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D. earned his doctorate in neuroscience from Yale and did post-doctoral work at Harvard. He is a priest of the diocese of Fall River, and serves as the Director of Education at The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. See www.ncbcenter.org.

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