Unprecedented attack on our religious liberty

On Friday, January 20th, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced that almost all employers, including Catholic employers, will be forced to offer their employees health coverage that includes sterilization, abortion-inducing drugs, and contraception. Almost all health insurers will be forced to include those “services” in the health policies they write. And almost all individuals will be forced to buy that coverage as a part of their policies.

This alarming mandate not only negatively impacts the Catholic Church in the United States directly, it also strikes at the fundamental right to religious liberty of all citizens of any faith.

Our Founding Fathers recognized the innate right to religious liberty when they enshrined this right as our first freedom in the Bill of Rights. The author of the First Amendment, James Madison, wrote: “Conscience is the most sacred of all property.” Thomas Jefferson wrote: “No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of the civil authority.”

We as Americans cherish our religious liberty, which includes freedom of conscience. The mandate from HHS is an unprecedented attack on this liberty since it coerces religious institutions and citizens to pay for actions that violate our moral teachings and religious beliefs.

We cannot and we will not comply with this unjust federal order. We cannot and we will not accept this egregious affront to our religious liberty.

For institutions and individuals that have on moral grounds not provided these illicit “services” before, HHS extended the deadline for compliance with its mandate to August 1, 2013, in effect, giving us one year to prepare to violate our consciences, which we cannot and will not do. Instead, we need to do all we can in the coming months to correct this terrible wrong. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is actively exploring options for litigation and legislative proposals to remedy this injustice.

The implications of this mandate for the Catholic Church in the United States, including our diocese, our Catholic health care institutions, our Catholic colleges and universities, and our Catholic Charities are grave. This injustice also negatively affects other religious institutions and people of faith who share our moral beliefs on these issues. Many who do not share our beliefs also object to the HHS rules, recognizing that they are a violation of religious freedom and the rights of conscience.

Some have noted that HHS included a religious exemption in the new mandate. But to be eligible for this exemption, an organization must meet four strict criteria, including the requirement that it both hire and serve primarily people of its own faith. Catholic schools and hospitals would have to eject their non-Catholic employees, students and patients to qualify for the exemption. Catholic Charities and other Catholic social service agencies would have to eject their non-Catholic employees and provide help primarily to Catholics. As some have noted, Jesus and his apostles would not have been “religious enough” for this exemption, since they healed and served people of different faiths.

In the aftermath of the HHS ruling on January 20th, I and many of my brother bishops have spoken out forcefully against the unjust mandate, against this unconscionable decision of the Obama Administration. On January 20th, Cardinal Roger Mahoney, the retired Archbishop of Los Angeles, wrote:

“I cannot imagine a more direct and frontal attack on freedom of conscience than this ruling today. This decision must be fought against with all the energies the Catholic community can muster. For me there is no other fundamental issue as important as this one as we enter into the Presidential and Congressional campaigns. Every candidate must be pressed to declare his-her position on all of the fundamental life issues, especially the role of government to determine what conscience decision must be followed: either the person’s own moral and conscience decision, or that dictated/enforced by the Federal government.”

Indeed, we must focus our energies in the coming months on fighting this unjust mandate and defending our religious liberty. I exhort all, our priests, deacons, religious, and laity to be engaged on this issue. We need to defend our cherished rights and resist violations of our first freedom. We must hold firm and be courageous in this matter. I am indeed grateful for the strong public stance taken by the presidents of the Catholic colleges and universities in our diocese as well as that taken by our Catholic health care leaders. We must be united in our defense of the religious liberty granted us by God and protected in our nation’s Constitution.

Just a couple days before the announcement of the HHS decision, Pope Benedict XVI, in an ad limina address to Bishops of the United States, spoke about his worry that religious liberty in the United States is being weakened. He called it the “most cherished of American freedoms.” The Holy Father said:

“Of particular concern are certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion. Many of you have pointed out that concerted efforts have been made to deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices. Others have spoken to me of a worrying tendency to reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience. Here once more we see the need for an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity endowed with a strong critical sense vis-à-vis the dominant culture and with the courage to counter a reductive secularism which would delegitimize the Church’s participation in public debate about the issues which are determining the future of American society.”

As a community of faith, we must commit ourselves to prayer and sacrifice so that truth and justice may prevail and religious liberty may be restored. Without God, we can do nothing. With God, nothing is impossible. I also recommend visiting www.usccb.org/conscience to learn more about this severe assault on religious liberty and how to contact Congress in support of legislation that would reverse the Administration’s decision.

May the Holy Spirit guide us and strengthen us in this battle!

Most Reverend Kevin C. Rhoades

Bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend

Posted on February 1, 2012, to: