The Obama administration has chosen to ignore the First Amendment and add insult to injury for Catholics whose schools, hospitals and charities help make this nation great. Now the real fight begins.
Religious leaders had feared the worst from Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and her Department of Health and Human Services, which since September has been considering whether to exempt Catholic and other religious employers from a regulation mandating insurance coverage for sterilization and contraceptives, including some that cause abortion.
But on Friday afternoon, Sebelius announced the bad news in the most offensive way possible. Refusing even the smallest compromise with religious employers, she simply gave them an extra year to comply with the law.
“This decision was made after very careful consideration, including the important concerns some have raised about religious liberty,” Sebelius wrote in a brief statement from HHS. “I believe this proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services.”
Her attempt to appear compromising is absurd. What “balance” could Sebelius possibly mean? The HHS regulations include the narrowest exemption for religious employers ever proposed by the federal government, and even more restrictive than such exemptions in most states.
Any pretense of seeking “common ground” with faithful Catholics–which President Obama offered during his much-protested appearance at the University of Notre Dame nearly three years ago–has been stripped away. Only weeks ago, it seemed that the White House might be more sympathetic than Sebelius to the concerns of Catholic and other religious leaders. President Obama met personally with Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, reportedly assuring a good outcome to the HHS debacle. But now one newspaper is reporting that the president himself gave the bad news to Archbishop Dolan on Friday morning, something akin to two generals exchanging courtesies before the battle rages.
Later, the archbishop issued a statement that offered no hope for common ground: “In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences,” Dolan said. “To force American citizens to choose between violating their consciences and forgoing their health care is literally unconscionable. It is as much an attack on access to health care as on religious freedom.”
The U.S. bishops and leaders from the Protestant, evangelical and Jewish communities have warned the Obama administration many times against any compromise of religious freedom. Many religious organizations also vigorously opposed the interim HHS rule, such as the 18 Catholic colleges that joined last September in protest together with The Cardinal Newman Society and the key bishop responsible for Catholic education.
But now the fight is in the courts, and the attention shifts to one small Catholic college that has stood valiantly to oppose the HHS rule in federal court. The suit filed by Belmont Abbey College in the District Court in Washington, D.C., is perhaps the best hope that religious organizations have to halt the HHS mandate, along with a similar suit filed by Colorado Christian College in its home state. Both colleges are represented by the impressive Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which won this month’s unanimous Supreme Court decision against the Obama administration’s attempt to abolish special protections for religious employers with regard to their “ministerial” employees.
Hidden away in the hills of North Carolina, the monks of Belmont Abbey College have endured far more than their share of harassment from the federal government, and now they are fighting back. Since 2009, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has held that the college is violating a federal law barring “pregnancy discrimination” by refusing to cover prescription contraceptives in its employee health plan. The EEOC has simply ignored the college’s appeal, leaving Catholic employers uncertain which is next to receive an EEOC complaint.
In a press conference explaining Belmont Abbey’s lawsuit against the HHS mandate, President Bill Thierfelder said he would rather close the college before submitting to tyranny.
“We want to serve our community but we feel cornered,” Thierfelder said. “Let me make it clear. We are not forcing our beliefs upon anyone else. We respect the constitutional right of all faiths to freely exercise their religion. We simply want that constitutional right given to us as well.”
Because it’s not simply a “Catholic issue,” he said. This is a matter of basic constitutional liberty.
“This affects every American and their right to freedom and the right of conscience,” Thierfelder said. “If the government can compel private organizations to abandon their conscience as a condition of serving the public, what can’t the government do?”
That’s the question facing thousands of religious organizations across the country. Negotiations with the Obama administration are over, if they ever really began with sincerity from the White House. If the federal government cannot respect the First Amendment, then religious organizations must join the fight in the courts.
And they must win.
Patrick J. Reilly is president of The Cardinal Newman Society, which promotes faithful Catholic identity in Catholic higher education.