Tuesday, February 28, 2012

President Obama: Render Unto God the Things that Are God’s

Jesus is often quoted for his saying to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” The rest of the quote could be a message to the Obama Administration: “Render unto God the things that are God’s.”

The current tensions over religious freedom come down to a simple fact: the First Amendment guarantees free exercise of religion. That includes the right of Catholic and other religious institutions to define and carry out their ministry.

An Obama regulation that compels virtually all employers to provide sterilization and contraceptives, including abortion-causing drugs, to employees without co-pay, has a religious exemption. But the exemption is so narrow that Jesus himself wouldn’t qualify. Religious ministries qualify for the exemption only if the people providing the service are Catholic, the ones being served are Catholic, and the service itself comes packaged with religious instruction.

So much for hospital ministry. Will “Where does it hurt?” have to be replaced with “Where were you baptized?” At the soup kitchen will “Are you hungry?” be replaced with “Are you Catholic?” Will we have to teach the hungry the Apostle’s Creed before we feed them?

It is the church, not Caesar, that defines ministry. We Catholics are called to serve others because we’re Catholic, not because they are. We help others because of their need, not their creed. For the government to hold fast to its new definition of ministry, one crafted by the American Civil Liberties Union, reflects deafness to the Constitution that is unbecoming to the man sworn to defend it.

There has been some talk of accommodation, whereby (it is claimed) some Catholic institutions would not have to pay for services that violate their religious beliefs. Apparently, their insurance companies would pay for the services instead. One doesn’t have to be a cynic to question where the money to pay for those services will come from, as the only pool of available funds seems to be the premiums subsidized by the objecting religious institutions. And the government’s problematic definition of religious ministry still remains. There also is the question of what self-insured Catholic organizations are supposed to do. What good does it do to say the dirty work will be done by the insurer rather than the employer, if they are one and the same?

The Administration’s intrusive decision about what does and does not constitute religious ministry should make every American pause. What falls after freedom of religion? Freedom of the press? Will Caesar tell you what you have to print or air?

Days before President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to the miserly religious exemption in his Administration’s regulation; the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision pertinent to religious freedom. In the Hosanna-Tabor case, the Court upheld 9-0 the right of a Lutheran Church to decide who its ministers are. The Obama Administration had taken the opposite, and losing, side, arguing that the church had no more right of religious liberty than a secular organization. One would have expected the Court’s resounding rejection of that argument to bring the Administration’s eyes into focus on the religious liberty question. Clearly it did not.

The Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution makes freedom of religion the “First Freedom.” The Founding Fathers stressed that this freedom was sacred. George Washington in 1789 wrote to an annual meeting of Quakers that “The conscientious scruples of all men should be treated with great delicacy and tenderness and it is my wish and desire, that the laws may always be extremely accommodated to them.”

Certainly our government, wise as it is, can’t be expected (and shouldn’t purport) to know everything. It might well ease its burdens by leaving some things to the Almighty and rendering unto God the things that are God’s.

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