When it comes to church-state relations, both church and government historically have watched to keep the government out of church business. The U.S. Constitution acknowledged the significance of the role of the First Estate, when it declared that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."
It is a clear message that government must not stick its proverbial camel's nose under the church tent. Now, however, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has gone beyond nuzzling its nose where it does not belong. It has plunked itself right in the middle of the sanctuary. It is trying to define what a religion does and does not do.
This misguided move comes with a proposed HHS regulation to guide implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The regulation for the new health care reform bill demands that all health plans pay for contraceptives, sterilizations and education to use both.
In a tacit acknowledgement that this violates the Constitution's cherished respect for religious liberty, HHS provides an exemption for religious employers -- but with a catch. The church agency can only claim exemption if it primarily serves people of its own faith. It also must meet other requirements, such as employing mostly people of its own faith.
This means HHS is setting itself up to determine what constitutes church ministry and who Jesus meant when he referred to serving "the least of my brethren."
Catholic hospitals, charities and educational institutions provide about $30 billion worth of service annually in this country. No one presents a baptismal certificate at the emergency room. The hungry do not recite the Creed to get groceries at the food pantry. Students can pursue learning at The Catholic University of America, Villanova or any other Catholic college without passing a catechism admissions test. The commitment to serve those in need, the sick, the hungry, the uneducated, is intrinsic to Catholicism. No federal rule (except now HHS's) says the church must limit its service to Catholics if it is to be true to its teaching. HHS doesn't get the parable of the Good Samaritan, who helped the stranger simply because he was in need.
Look at the numbers. Catholic hospitals admit about 5.6 million people annually. That's one out of every six persons seeking hospital care in the United States. Catholic Charities serves more than 9 million people annually. Catholic colleges and universities teach 850,000 students annually. Among those served are Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, atheists, agnostics and members of any other religious or irreligious group you can name.
For the time being HHS has given itself wiggle room, saying that the public in the next two months can suggest an "alternative" definition of a "religious employer." That's good because health care reform ought to increase access to basic care, not push religious groups to either violate their principles or abandon service to those in need whatever their religious beliefs.
Meanwhile, the sanctuary is getting crowded. It is time for HHS to remove itself.