Never before has an American president so openly and wantonly disregarded the religious civil liberties of so many.
Last Friday, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that it would make final the rule mandating that insurance policies provide for contraceptive services, including sterilization, and drugs with an abortifacient mechanism of action.
With this rule, hundreds of religious colleges and hospitals, for example, will now be required –in fact, coerced -- into providing insurance coverage for practices they believe to be morally wrong and violative of their religious beliefs. These institutions, which have educated citizens and cared for the infirm for hundreds of years, will now have to cave into the federal government or close their doors.
After the HHS handed down its interim rule in August, 2011, numerous organizations, including the ACLJ, submitted comments to HHS arguing that the proposed rule would violate federal law and subvert the First Amendment. As the ACLJ wrote in its September 29, 2011 letter to HHS on behalf of Dominican Sisters of the Congregation of St. Cecilia:
In their 151-year history, the Nashville Dominicans have, with the help of God, survived a Civil War on their doorstep, deadly epidemics, devastating floods, economic depression and tumultuous social upheaval. Today, however, they face a new, more insidious threat — their own government . . . Should HHS persist in implementing the Interim Rule and its contraceptive mandate without major modifications, the Congregation will be forced to curtail its mission. What war and disease could not do to the Congregation, the government of the United States will do. It will shut them down.
Acknowledging “the important concerns some have raised about religious liberty,” Kathleen Sebelius stated on Friday that HHS would keep the substance of the original rule, but add an additional element: nonprofit employers who do not provide contraceptive coverage in their insurance plans because of their religious beliefs would be given an additional year to comply with the HHS edict.
If this is the administration’s idea of accommodating sincerely and deeply held religious beliefs, then HHS can keep it. How does it strike an “appropriate balance” between the dictates of the government and the constitutional rights of religious associations to say you can have your right for an extra 365 days before we take it away? As one church leader put it: “In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences.”
Indeed, with this recent action, the administration has made it abundantly clear that the Free Speech clause means precious little; that the Free Exercise clause isn’t worth a dime; that religious civil liberties are bargaining chips that can be negotiated away in the face of political pressure and the dictates of ideology.
It gets worse. Taking a page from the NARAL and its attacks on crisis pregnancy centers, the rule will require religious organizations seeking a one year reprieve to inform their employees that the objectionable services they will not provide can be obtained elsewhere. In other words, you can have an extra year to practice your faith, but during that time you must say what we the government want you to say. It apparently wasn’t enough for HHS to undermine the Free Exercise clause, they wanted to throw in the Free Speech clause too.
Catholics are hardly alone in decrying the HHS’s actions as offensive to religious liberties. Richard Land, president of the Nashville-based Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said, “This is bad news for freedom of conscience and for respect for the freedom of religion protections guaranteed in the American Constitution. Secretary Sebelius is stating that people who have religious convictions against contraceptives or particular types of contraceptives that are abortifacients will have a one-year reprieve before they will be forced to pay for health insurance for that which they find unconscionable.”
No doubt about it: this unprecedented, wholesale attack on the religious and conscience rights of American citizens and groups is morally and constitutionally repugnant. If it’s indicative of how this administration regards the fundamental right to religious freedom, one shudders to think what’s next.
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