Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A Decision Upholding American Ideals of Freedom

By Sister Mary Ann Walsh

The Supreme Court decision on the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties cases rests on an important part of the American experience: the defense of religious freedom. The Green family owners of Hobby Lobby and the Hahn family owners of Conestoga Wood say their pro-life beliefs permeate their entire lives. The result: They run companies that are generous with life-giving benefits when it comes to health insurance. They also find abhorrent the idea that the government would make them finance through health insurance life-taking activities, such as drugs and procedures that can end human life.

Fighting for freedom of religious belief and practice is fundamental to being an American. The decision coming down days before the nation’s annual Fourth of July celebration, and during the bishops’ third Fortnight for Freedom, speaks loudly of the freedoms on which our nation was formed.

People can and do exercise religious freedom in their everyday and business lives. Some, such as Hobby Lobby, reflect their religious principles in how they run a family business and the insurance plans they provide for employees. Some companies refuse to open on Sunday, the Lord’s Day. Some run a kosher kitchen and you can buy your pork elsewhere. In the United States, all have a right to let religious values influence their business decisions.

Alas, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services seems to have but one goal: promotion of birth control and abortion. HHS’s unrelenting drive to force its idea of women’s health care on everyone is breathtaking and heavy-handed. For those who will not comply with the HHS mandate to provide employees and their dependents contraceptives, sterilization and life-terminating drugs and devices, the fine is $100 a day per employee, that is, $36,500 a year per employee. Indeed, the government penalizes employers who can’t comply with the mandate more than those who offer no health care at all, whose payment is $2000 a year per employee. For HHS, apparently you’re better off with no employer health plan at all than with a plan sans contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs.

The Court decision reminds us that government must meet a high bar to infringe on religious freedom, and people of all creeds are watching. Because the HHS mandate still applies to religious ministries that serve people – think schools, food pantries, shelters, and other social service operations – the mandate threatens faith-based charities with steep fines for noncompliance. It can easily threaten the very ability of those ministries to serve the poor, the sick and vulnerable. Charities won’t last long paying government fines of $36,500 a year per employee. The recent decision refers to an “accommodation” proposed by the Obama Administration for non-profits which many, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, find intrusive into their religious freedom. These groups have filed suit because the government’s suggested accommodation would force religious non-profits to certify and legally authorize someone else to provide objectionable services in their name. The court did not decide these cases, which will likely face it in its new term, but has helpfully said that it is not the government’s job to second-guess how religious groups view their religious obligations.

The government also says it acknowledges religions by basically exempting houses of worship from the HHS mandate. That reduces freedom of religion to freedom of worship, by affording protection to worship in the sanctuary but not to service to the needy. This violates both a longstanding understanding of religious freedom and the Catholic tradition. Helping people is part of the essence of the Catholic Church. The story of the Good Samaritan, who helped the stranger in need, tells us that serving your neighbor is integral to Christianity. When HHS decided what is and is not “religion” deserving religious freedom protection, it overstepped its bounds.

Go to a University of Notre Dame football game and hear the announcements for Mass times for the students afterwards. Go to a Little Sisters of the Poor home for the elderly and watch the nuns tend to patients, comforted by a crucifix on the wall. There’s something different in the air. It stems from religious belief, and it’s Catholicism imbuing everyday life. Why would anyone want our society flattened out into one that does not welcome this as part of our American diversity?

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