The issue of religious freedom has received a great deal of attention in recent months on a variety of fronts, including in the healthcare arena, where the U.S. bishops and other Catholic groups have been voicing opposition to a federal
Department of Health and Human Services mandate requiring no cost coverage of contraception and sterilization in most private health insurance plans.
This “interim final rule” from the HHS includes only a very narrow religious exemption. Basically, to qualify, a Catholic institution must primarily serve and hire Catholics, which would be a serious blow to Catholic social service and health care providers. The rule violates the conscience rights of Catholic institutions as well as others who would be forced to cover services they find morally objectionable or curtail the services they provide.
Catholic institutions and others with similar beliefs regarding the HHS mandate aren’t seeking to impose their moral views on others; what they are asking is for others to respect their deeply rooted religious beliefs — a protection that is afforded by no less than the U.S. Constitution.
That’s what makes a recent StarTribune commentary authored by a Minnesota state senator puzzling. Sen. Scott Dibble of Minneapolis states that “the Catholic bishops’ efforts blatantly undermine religious freedom in our country.”
Come again? Clearly, it’s the federal government that is “blatantly undermining religious freedom” by coercing religious institutions to violate core beliefs.
Serving those in need
Particularly offensive is this statement from the senator: “This is just the latest in a broad campaign by the bishops to impose their narrow religious views onto the laws of our country (and to enrich themselves with taxpayer dollars for the programs and institutions they run at the same time.)”
The programs and institutions to which he refers and that make use of public funding to “enrich themselves” include Catholic Charities agencies around the country that last year helped more than 10 million people — regardless of their religious affiliations — to gain access to food, housing, counseling and other social support services. They include Catholic hospitals and other Catholic health care facilities that serve millions of people, including many of the poor who would have a difficult time getting care anywhere else.
They also include hundreds of Catholic institutions of higher learning that not only provide a good education to their students — Catholic and non-Catholic alike — but also instill in them important values, like respecting the life and dignity of every human being and serving the common good as they set out to start careers and families.
If Catholic institutions are forced to curtail these services — in reality ministries that flow from the church’s social teachings and that benefit broader society — because of government rules, then government, and consequently taxpayers, will have to pick up much of the slack. Are Sen. Dibble and other legislators prepared to raise taxes in this economy to make up what is lost?
Likely not. Sen. Dibble says “our lawmakers should be focused on keeping people healthy.” The way to accomplish this is to respect the religious freedom of Catholic institutions and let them do what they have been doing well for centuries: responding to the Gospel mandate to care for all those in need without being fettered by a government mandate that doesn’t include an adequate conscience exemption respecting the core American principle of religious freedom.