We Catholics, joined by other concerned Americans, have entered into an important "Fortnight for Freedom". Sponsored by the Bishops of the United States, this initiative is a focused period of prayer, study, catechesis and public witness highlighting our Christian and American heritage of liberty. It is being observed from June 21 through July 4.
This extraordinary event has been precipitated by a growing concern over mounting threats to religious liberty in our nation and around the world. Our liturgical and civic calendars during these two weeks offer ample opportunities to focus our attention on this theme. The calendar includes the liturgical observances of several great martyrs who remained faithful in the face of persecution by political powers as well as the great civic celebration of American freedom, Independence Day.
Our local "Fortnight for Freedom" observance began this weekend with two special events in Oklahoma City. I want to thank those of you who were able to join in the Mass in honor of the martyrs St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher at Our Lady's Cathedral on Friday evening and at the Rally for Religious Freedom on Saturday afternoon at the Cox Convention Center.
Why are we suddenly hearing so much about religious liberty? The remarkable mobilization of energies around this issue has been triggered by the recent federal HHS mandate. Unless overturned this mandate will require virtually all employer sponsored health insurance programs to provide coverage for sterilization, contraception and even abortion inducing drugs as so-called preventive services. Any exemption to this requirement based on religious belief has been written so narrowly that few can actually qualify. Before summarizing the Bishops' concerns about this unjust mandate, let me say briefly what this debate is not about.
— This debate is not about contraception. Though I pray that more Catholics will recognize and accept the wisdom of the Church's consistent teaching against the use of contraception, the bishops are not attempting to ban it. Contraception will undoubtedly remain widely available for those who seek it. We simply and forcefully object to being compelled to pay for something which is contrary to our religious beliefs.
— This debate is not about religious freedom for Catholics only, but about the religious freedom and conscience rights of those whose beliefs may be the next to face government interference.
— This debate is not about the Church attempting to force anyone to do anything. It is about whether the government should be allowed to compel the faithful, and all but a few Catholic institutions, to act against Church teachings.
— This is not a fight that that the Church has asked for, but one which has been forced upon us by the federal mandate. We did not choose the timing for this public debate. The government picked this fight, and we cannot afford to back away from it.
— This is neither a partisan issue, nor a liberal or conservative issue, but an American issue.
If these are things that this debate is not about, what then is it about? At the heart of our concern about this mandate is an unwarranted government definition of religion. The separation between Church and State, enshrined in our Constitution, is certainly intended to prevent the Church from overreaching unlawfully in the affairs of government. But it is also intended to keep the government from interfering in the internal affairs of the Church. This action represents an unprecedented and unlawful piercing of the veil of separation by which the government is attempting to define who is and who is not religious. The government has no business defining religion or religious ministries.
The HHS mandate includes an extremely narrow definition of who is a religious employer. Only those are considered "religious enough" to qualify for exemption from the mandate that hire and serve primarily those of their own faith and have as their goal the inculcation of their own religious beliefs. This narrow definition fails to recognize and protect our vital Catholic ministries such as Catholic Charities, Catholic hospitals and even our Catholic universities. All of these institutions serve without regard to the faith or beliefs of those whom they serve. Yet they are an integral expression of our faith.
This arbitrary and narrow definition of religion divorces the commandment to love God from the commandment to love our neighbor. Whether intentional or not, its effect is to reduce the ability of the Church to carry out its mission in the public square and contribute to the common good. It reduces religious freedom to simply the freedom to worship. It privatizes religion.
Further this mandate forces those Catholic entities which the government does not deem sufficiently religious to violate their own teachings within their very own institutions. It is a mandate to act against our own consciences. This cannot stand!
There is also imbedded in this HHS mandate another concern. The mandate creates a third category in addition to the exempt religious institutions and those religious institutions "not religious enough" to qualify. This third category is the individuals who strive in their daily lives to act in accordance with their faith and moral values. These are the individuals who have labored to form their consciences properly but now face a government mandate requiring them to aid in providing "services" contrary to their faith or deeply held values. Whether as employers, or employees, or even as insurers they are left without any sort of conscience exemption at all. This too is unprecedented in federal law which until now has always been generous in providing conscience protection to individuals so that they are not forced to act against their religious beliefs or moral convictions.
The "Fortnight of Freedom" is a rallying cry. This is going to be a long struggle. It will not end on July 4. Let us raise our voices in prayer, but also commit ourselves to study and appropriate action in witness to the important values at stake for us as Catholics and as Americans. Religious liberty is a right recognized in our Constitution. But it is not a right bestowed on us by the government. It is a universal human right granted to us by God our Creator.