I need a bumper sticker that says "I support my bishops." Media criticisms of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops notwithstanding, they have delivered a cogent defense of conscience in the face of the Obama administration's recent attempt to stamp it out.
At stake is whether or not the Church must provide contraception at no cost to the employees of its various institutions. The Church does not ask that it be permitted to impose its morality on its employees or anyone else. The Church asks only that it not be compelled to participate in the commission of acts which its conscience cannot tolerate.
Archbishop Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York and president of the USCCB, delivered a clear defense of the Church's freedom of conscience in the Wall Street Journal:
Religious freedom is the lifeblood of the American people, the cornerstone of American government. When the Founding Fathers determined that the innate rights of men and women should be enshrined in our Constitution, they so esteemed religious liberty that they made it the first freedom in the Bill of Rights.
In particular, the Founding Fathers fiercely defended the right of conscience. George Washington himself declared: "The conscientious scruples of all men should be treated with great delicacy and tenderness; and it is my wish and desire, that the laws may always be extensively accommodated to them." James Madison, a key defender of religious freedom and author of the First Amendment, said: "Conscience is the most sacred of all property."
Scarcely two weeks ago, in its Hosanna-Tabor decision upholding the right of churches to make ministerial hiring decisions, the Supreme Court unanimously and enthusiastically reaffirmed these longstanding and foundational principles of religious freedom. The court made clear that they include the right of religious institutions to control their internal affairs.
Yet the Obama administration has veered in the opposite direction. It has refused to exempt religious institutions that serve the common good—including Catholic schools, charities and hospitals—from its sweeping new health-care mandate that requires employers to purchase contraception, including abortion-producing drugs, and sterilization coverage for their employees.
Last August, when the administration first proposed this nationwide mandate for contraception and sterilization coverage, it also proposed a "religious employer" exemption. But this was so narrow that it would apply only to religious organizations engaged primarily in serving people of the same religion. As Catholic Charities USA's president, the Rev. Larry Snyder, notes, even Jesus and His disciples would not qualify for the exemption in that case, because they were committed to serve those of other faiths.
Since then, hundreds of religious institutions, and hundreds of thousands of individual citizens, have raised their voices in principled opposition to this requirement that religious institutions and individuals violate their own basic moral teaching in their health plans. Certainly many of these good people and groups were Catholic, but many were Americans of other faiths, or no faith at all, who recognize that their beliefs could be next on the block. They also recognize that the cleverest way for the government to erode the broader principle of religious freedom is to target unpopular beliefs first.
Now we have learned that those loud and strong appeals were ignored. On Friday, the administration reaffirmed the mandate, and offered only a one-year delay in enforcement in some cases—as if we might suddenly be more willing to violate our consciences 12 months from now. As a result, all but a few employers will be forced to purchase coverage for contraception, abortion drugs and sterilization services even when they seriously object to them. All who share the cost of health plans that include such services will be forced to pay for them as well. Surely it violates freedom of religion to force religious ministries and citizens to buy health coverage to which they object as a matter of conscience and religious principle.
The rule forces insurance companies to provide these services without a co-pay, suggesting they are "free"—but it is naïve to believe that. There is no free lunch, and you can be sure there's no free abortion, sterilization or contraception. There will be a source of funding: you.
Coercing religious ministries and citizens to pay directly for actions that violate their teaching is an unprecedented incursion into freedom of conscience. Organizations fear that this unjust rule will force them to take one horn or the other of an unacceptable dilemma: Stop serving people of all faiths in their ministries—so that they will fall under the narrow exemption—or stop providing health-care coverage to their own employees.
The Catholic Church defends religious liberty, including freedom of conscience, for everyone. The Amish do not carry health insurance. The government respects their principles. Christian Scientists want to heal by prayer alone, and the new health-care reform law respects that. Quakers and others object to killing even in wartime, and the government respects that principle for conscientious objectors. By its decision, the Obama administration has failed to show the same respect for the consciences of Catholics and others who object to treating pregnancy as a disease.
This latest erosion of our first freedom should make all Americans pause. When the government tampers with a freedom so fundamental to the life of our nation, one shudders to think what lies ahead.
A number of other bishops - including Bishop Conley of Denver, Bishops Vann and Farrell of Ft. Worth and Dallas, Bishop Olmsted of Phoenix, and Bishop Loverde of Arlington - have reechoed Archbishop Dolan's appraisal.
The bishops are urging Catholics - and, indeed, all Americans concerned about the freedom of conscience, to write to their congressmen asking them to support the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act (H.R. 1179, S. 1467). While you're at it, contact the president and implore him to reverse this decision. (And don't mark this down as a "health care" concern, because it is not; for your subject, choose "civil rights." Because that is what is at stake.)
And then say some prayers. Not least for our bishops, who bear a tremendous burden in their work as shepherds.
For Washington's comments on conscience, see his Letter to the Quakers. For the full text of Madison's comments, click here.