The Obama administration is about to draw a bright red line challenging Catholicism over what constitutes “religious activity.”
Normally this is a theological debate, but now is being fought in the political arena. The issue avoids the usual suspects: funding of abortions, gay marriage, stem cell research, capital punishment. The wrestling is over new Health and Human Services guidelines that say agencies like Catholic Charities and Catholic hospitals that qualify for public funding are no longer to be covered by the same conscience protections afforded to specifically religious organizations. The government, apparently, intends to take theology out of medical decisions made within agencies that receive tax dollars. Religious institutions could not rely on government rules to enforce a theological teaching for a tax-funded agency: the religion would have to persuade its own members about right and wrong.
Protesting the proposed guidelines are both the Catholic bishops and the Catholic Health Association (CHA). These two organizations were at loggerheads not so long ago, with the bishops protesting the Affordable Care Act passed by Congress and the CHA favoring the legislation. At issue then was whether to trust the Obama administration that government funds would not be used for abortions. The bishops declined to believe the president’s executive order, while the CHA accepted it and urged passage of the comprehensive national health care act. Now both groups are united in pressing the administration to withdraw or at least redefine its distinction between religious activity and non-religious activity from churches.
The new policy says that if a doctor prescribes artificial means of birth control, the cost must be paid for by insurance plans in agencies not engaged in strictly religious activity. Patients will not be required to use birth control pills, but employees of Catholic institutions must cover birth control pills and other devices paid for in the insurance plan. The government reasons that birth control by artificial means is medically acceptable today and that when a religious agency is not engaged in specifically religious activity it ought not impose its particular theological reasoning upon its employees, many of whom may not profess that religion. (To qualify for public funding, agencies are generally prohibited from imposing a hiring requirement that employees belong to their religious practice). In other words, the church need not include birth control measures in the insurance plan for the parish office secretary, but a Catholic hospital health plan will be required to cover physician ordered birth control methods to the workers. The conscience exemption that applies to the direct religious activity of the rectory is denied to a worker in a tax-funded agency that does not have worship as its purpose.
An eloquent letter from the CHA can be found online, arguing that motivation by faith merits conscience protection Count me as one who supports their reasoning. However, I think the government’s concern may not have been Catholicism but rather faiths with less sophisticated theology.
Consider, for instance, the faith-based initiatives of the Bush years which allowed evangelical churches to secure government funding for charter schools, day care centers, prison outreach classes and the like. Unlike Catholic Charities or Catholic hospitals, these entities can claim exemption from non-discriminatory hiring or public conduct. Thus, in some taxpayer funded agencies run by evangelical churches, no homosexual person, no divorced employee, no member of another faith may be hired. Some denominations routinely outlaw the drinking of coffee, women in pant suits, the use of makeup, etc. because these are considered “sins.”
Without denying the religious freedom of conscience for churches to impose these rules on employees and clients, it does not seem fair to me that my taxes should finance their faith practices. Sadly, most Americans — including Catholics — view the church’s teachings on birth control pills in much the same way we look at Mormon prohibitions on coffee. The birth control issue may not be the place to wage a battle. Nonetheless, it seems that a one-size-fits-all approach to “direct religious activity” unfairly infringes on the faith practice of Catholics, Jews and Mainline Protestants who have long ago figured out that you can fulfill a religious duty to help people without also trying to convert them.