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Religious Liberty and the Freedom of Conscience

Last August, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) announced new rules and regulations aimed to improve women’s health. On January 20, the DHHS announced a revision to its religious exemption clause that exempts health plans provided by religious employers that primarily employ and serve people who share the employer’s religion.

It is this exemption clause that concerns many people, since it would force organizations (such as Catholic hospitals and universities) to spend their money on something that violates their conscience.

Am I concerned about religious liberty and freedom of conscience? We all should worry about attacks on people because of their faith:

  • A menorah on the lawn of a private residence in the town of Plainview, NY was vandalized during this past Hanukkah
  • A church’s Nativity scene that included depictions of gay and lesbian couples was vandalized in Calrmont, CA.
  • In New Jersey, three adults and two juveniles were charged with bias intimidation and harassment after they allegedly pelted two Orthodox Jewish teens with eggs and told them, `You better move on you Jew boys.`
  • In Los Angeles, a Korean church was set on fire and racist graffiti was scrawled nearby.
  • The increasing number of anti-Muslim hate groups, such as Stop the Islamization of America.

Do I think the Obama administration is waging a war on religion in pursuit of a secular socialist agenda? Not so much.

More likely, the administration is trying to do the most good for the most people. In a nation as large and as diverse as the United States, this is a difficult task. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail (of course, “success” and “failure” is relative–if you  are a Republican, anything this administration does will be a failure, almost by definition.)

At worst, the administration made a bad policy decision that is pissing off a lot of people, myself included.

But I accept Secretary Sebelius’ reasoning for what it is. I may disagree with her, but I believe that she is a good person who is simply trying to do the best job she can. But I also agree with my bishop,  R. Daniel Conlon, of the Diocese of Joliet:

Now, it is no secret that many Catholics dissent from the Church’s longstanding teaching on artificial contraception, elective sterilization and abortion. However, pursuing old arguments on these issues will sidetrack us from the real one at hand. The Health and Human Services directive is a violent breach of the wall of separation between church and state. For the government to force a religious body to pursue a course of action that contradicts its beliefs, particularly where no public interest is at stake, is completely unacceptable.

But I don’t think the half-time entertainment at next year’s Super Bowl will include Christians being fed to lions. We must be careful to distinguish between public policy decisions with which we disagree (however strongly) with serious attacks on people because of their faith. Failure to do so subjects the victims of such crimes to a double indemnity: the crime itself, followed by the crime neglect.

Here is a copy of a letter I sent to President Obama, Vice-President Biden, and Secretary Sebelius. Not that I think it will have much of an effect. But at least I am trying to do something constructive.

I am writing to express my concerns about the new HHS rule regarding religious exemptions. Religious liberty is necessary to achieve the common good. However, religious liberty is more than just the freedom to worship in safety and security. Religious liberty also includes the freedom to teach the faith and live the faith.

Jesus instructed his disciples to “make disciples of all nations” and “[teach] them to observe all I have commanded you.” (Mt 28: 19, 20). Jesus instructed his disciples not only to preach the Gospel to all creatures but to also serve the world: “He summoned the Twelve and began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits.” (Mk 6: 7).

This ministry of mission is a key element of our faith. “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? [Faith] of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (Jas 2: 14, 17).

The Department of Health and Human Services will require religious institutions like Catholic hospitals and universities to spend their money in ways that contradict their faith, thereby limiting the Church’s ability to do good works. It is an attack on the faith itself. “For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” (Jas 2: 26). In no way does this protect religious liberty. In no way does this promote the common good.

In his letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, George Washington explained the importance of the freedom of conscience: “All possess a like liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. . . . For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

To the extent that the Catholic Church supports the interests of the Government of the United States in promoting the common good of all its citizens, the Department of Health and Human Services must respect its liberty of conscience. The new religious exemption clause fails in this endeavor. The religious exemption clause must be expanded so that religious institutions may exercise their faith in freedom and liberty.

Thank you for your service, and may you and your family be blessed with peace and all goodness!


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