Catholics: Hold Obama Accountable for Conscience Violations

Opinion   |   Bob Laird   |   Jan 30, 2012   |   12:49PM   |   Washington, DC

As we move closer to the November presidential elections, it is becoming clear that the increasing violations of religious liberty by the Obama administration will be the defining issue for Catholics.

Following the January 24 announcement that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has affirmed its controversial ruling which mandates that almost all employer health plans fully cover contraception, sterilization procedures and abortion-inducing drugs, Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan expressed outrage that both the U.S. Constitution and the clearly expressed position of the Church were being ignored by an out of control administration. In this unprecedented confrontation between the Roman Catholic Church and the federal government (see video), Archbishop Dolan called on Americans to bring the issue to their elected officials.

In agreement with Archbishop Dolan, Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, argued (here and here) that HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’s claims of “balance” between considerations of religion and Planned Parenthood ideology were absurd. Sebelius’s refusal to adequately weigh the concerns of religious organizations leaves the only remaining recourse to be the federal courts or the November elections.

Reilly observes that:

As in California, the HHS rule exempts only churches and church-affiliated entities that inculcate religious values, and serve and hire ‘primarily’ people of the same faith. Many faith-based colleges, schools, hospitals and other charities that serve and hire people of other faiths or are independent of church control will be forced to violate their deeply held religious convictions.

While the California Supreme Court upheld this exemption in 2004 and the United States Supreme Court set aside an appeal of that decision in the same year, Reilly suggests that were the question to be taken up by the Court today, the results might be quite different:

Given the recent tenor of the U.S. Supreme Court in support of religious liberty, sticking to an exemption that does not appear to cover most religious organizations is a gamble.

Of course, here Reilly was referring to the recent 9-0 U.S. Supreme Court decision on Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where the court held that:

The Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment bar suits brought on behalf of ministers against their churches, claiming termination in violation of employment discrimi­nation laws. Moreover, because the respondent in this case was a minister within the meaning of the minis­terial exception, the First Amendment requires dismissal of her em­ployment discrimination suit against her religious employer.

Belmont Abbey, a small Catholic college in North Carolina, and Colorado Christian College engaged the initial HHS ruling on the mandate by filing suit in Washington, D.C. against the mandatory contraception and sterilization coverage demanded by ObamaCare. Interestingly, both chose the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the same organization that won the recent Hosanna-Tabor decision, to represent them. Now that Sebelius has made a final decision on the exemption, we might see more, and perhaps broader, lawsuits on the same issue.

While the battle for religious freedom goes to court, it is still important to speak out against this attack on our religious freedom and vote accordingly, despite a clever and blatantly political addendum to the HHS decision. The HHS included a one-year postponement of the implementation of the religious exemption to the contraception and sterilization mandate in an attempt to make the mandate less of an issue during this election season. By deferring the implementation of the mandate, the president hopes that people will forget, just as they have forgotten about the loss of religious liberty when the California law passed 13 years ago.

Dolan noted in his statement that the President was on “the wrong side of the Constitution again.” He then issued a plea to Catholics:

How about letting our elected leaders know that we want religious liberty and the rights of conscience restored, and the Administration’s mandate rescinded. We cannot afford to strike out on this one. (Emphasis added.)

Two options remain if we are to keep the cherished religious liberties guaranteed for all Americans since this country was founded: to pursue a reversal of the HHS mandate via the courts, and to vote for a change in political leadership. Ensuring that the issue of religious freedom remains central in the political discussion for the next nine months will improve the chances that we will have a Congress and a President one year from now who will live by, and support, those cherished freedoms that Americans uphold. Note: Bob Laird is a fellow at HLI America, an educational initiative of Human Life International, and is the former Director of Tepeyac Family Center.  He writes from Lorton, Virginia.