Religious Freedom Under Threat in the USA
By Father John Flynn, LC
ROME, 27 JAN. 2011 (ZENIT)
The federal government decision last week on insurance coverage for contraceptives in the United States has been widely condemned.
Under the new health care law passed by Congress it was left to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to decide which institutions would be exempted from having to pay for contraceptives under their health plans.
Last Friday the HHS announced that while churches would not have to pay for contraceptives other associations linked to churches, such as schools, hospitals and charitable agencies would not have any exemption.
The only concession offered was to allow employers extra time, until August 2013, to comply with the law: a concession that some observers noted conveniently pushes the obligation beyond the next elections.
“I believe this proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services,” declared the HHS Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, in a press release announcing the decision.
A position not shared by many others who in the succeeding days expressed their views on the matter.
“In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences,” said Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a press release dated January 20.
He noted that the ruling means that sterilization and abortifacient contraceptives will also be included in the items that must be covered by health plans.
“The government should not force Americans to act as if pregnancy is a disease to be prevented at all costs,” he stated.
“Never before in our US history has the Federal Government forced citizens to directly purchase what violates our beliefs,” declared Cardinal Daniel DiNardo in his homily at the opening Mass of the National Prayer Vigil for Life on January 22.
At stake here, he said, “is the survival of a cornerstone constitutionally protected freedom that ensures respect for conscience and religious liberty.”
Sr. Carol Keehan, DC, the president of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, expressed her disappointment at the decision. “This was a missed opportunity to be clear on appropriate conscience protection,” she said.
Criticism has come from all quarters. “I cannot imagine a more direct and frontal attack on freedom of conscience than this ruling today,” said Cardinal Roger Mahony in a January 20 note on his blog. The recently retired archbishop of Los Angeles declared: “For me there is no other fundamental issue as important as this one as we enter into the Presidential and Congressional campaigns.”
Even the Washington Post condemned the HHS ruling. In a January 23 editorial the paper said: “The administration’s feint at a compromise — giving such employers another year to figure out how to comply with the requirement — is unproductive can-kicking that fails to address the fundamental problem of requiring religiously affiliated entities to spend their own money in a way that contradicts the tenets of their faith.”
Moreover, “requiring a religiously affiliated employer to spend its own money in a way that violates its religious principles does not make an adequate accommodation for those deeply held views.”
“It is imperative,” said Pope Benedict XVI addressing a group of American bishops just the day before the HHS decision, “that the entire Catholic community in the United States come to realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres.”
“Of particular concern are certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion,” he insisted.
There is speculation about what impact this decision will have on the elections to be held this November.
William McGurn, in a post dated January 24 on the Web site of the Wall Street Journal, commented that Barack Obama had obtained a majority of the Catholic vote in 2008.
Now, however, many Catholics who had previously favored Obama are horrified at the HHS decision, he noted. This includes people such as the president of Notre Dame, the Reverend John Jenkins, who had come under strong criticism for inviting the president to speak at the university and awarding him an honorary degree.
“The irony, of course, is that the ruling is being imposed by a Catholic Health and Human Services secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, working in an administration with a Catholic vice president, Joe Biden,” McGurn observed.
It is not just Catholics who are upset. Last December 21 more than 60 Protestant and Orthodox Jewish religious leaders wrote a letter to President Obama asking him not to require all private insurers to provide contraception and sterilization coverage.
“It is emphatically not only Catholics who deeply object to the requirement that health plans they purchase must provide coverage of contraceptives that include some that are abortifacients,” they said.
“We believe that the Federal government is obligated by the First Amendment to accommodate the religious convictions of faith-based organizations of all kinds, Catholic and non-Catholic,” they insisted.
An affirmation that will undoubtedly be repeated many times in the coming months as the elections draw nearer.