I have heard that when a lobster is placed in a pot of water and the temperature is increased incrementally, the poor creature does not sense what is happening until, well, until it is too late! For quite some time there have been incremental restrictions imposed by the government on religious freedom in our great country. Most of us have taken little notice. It seems, however, that we have finally reached the boiling point. Suddenly nearly everyone recognizes that we are in hot water. Unless we act now to turn down the heat, it may be too late. The recent HHS mandate has become the flashpoint that has awakened many Americans to the dangers of government intrusion on religious liberty and its failure to protect the conscience rights of its citizens. We are witnessing a growing consensus among people of faith and good will that the HHS mandate is not only an attack on Catholics’ free exercise of religion, but on all people who treasure the God-given right (which is protected by the United States Constitution) to religious liberty.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and I, as a member of the Conference, have objected strenuously to this mandate for two principal reasons. First, we object because it forces private health plans, by the stroke of a pen and executive whim, to cover sterilization, contraception and abortion-inducing drugs as preventive services. All of the other mandated “preventive” services prevent disease. Pregnancy is not a disease! Moreover, forcing insurance plans to cover abortion-inducing drugs violates already existing federal conscience laws.
Second, we recognize that the mandate will impose a burden of unprecedented severity and reach on the consciences of those who consider these “services” immoral. We are forced to pay, even if indirectly by a sort of shell game, for services which are contrary to Catholic moral teaching. The exceedingly restrictive religious exemption to this mandate barely covers churches. It provides no exemption to our Catholic institutions such as universities, hospitals or even Catholic Charities. It does not exempt most nonprofit religious employers, the religiously affiliated insurer, the self-insured employer, the for-profit religious employer or other private businesses owned by people who rightly object as a matter of conscience or religious principle to paying for sterilization, abortion-inducing drugs or contraceptives.
These signals coming from the administration are troubling. On its own initiative, it is redefining religious liberty as a mere freedom to worship. Religion is being excluded slowly but steadily from the public square (remember the lobster in the pot). We are witnessing the free exercise of religion reduced to a privilege arbitrarily granted by the government as a mere exemption from the requirements of an all-encompassing form of secularism. We must beware! This exemption, bestowed as a patronage by the government and by executive whim, can just as easily be revoked.
Religious freedom ought not to depend on the benevolence of the government. It is a God-given right and just societies will recognize and preserve its free exercise. It is the fundamental freedom and respect for it ought to be as broad and inclusive as possible.
We have much work to do in this important struggle. As Catholics we have to remember who we are, and act accordingly. We must act with courage, but with respect and charity even for those who oppose us. Please contact your legislators and ask them to support the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, which can be done through the action alert at www.usccb.org/conscience. You can also access the USCCB site from our website at www.archokc.org.