Mandate for health services touches full religious spectrum

DEAN ROHRER
DEAN ROHRER
Posted: June 03, 2012

Last month, Catholic archdioceses and institutions across the nation filed lawsuits against the Department of Health and Human Services for its overreaching mandate announced earlier this year.

The mandate would force church-affiliated hospitals, agencies, and universities to pay for services that violate their faith (such as contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs) as part of the health insurance they provide employees. If these groups do not comply, they will incur large penalties that may ultimately force many to close.

Not only is this mandate a blatant disregard of our First Amendment rights, it is an egregious attack on our religious liberty as a people. If we allow this to stand, "the free exercise of" beliefs will become part of our nation’s history, instead of one of our most treasured foundations.

While these organizations are taking an important stand, opposition to this radical mandate is not limited to the Catholic Church and Catholic organizations. Priests, rabbis and pastors, as well as ministry and faith leaders across the spectrum, are speaking out against this policy. The mandate impacts people of all faiths. Forcing a religious institution to provide and pay for services that violate its own faith goes against our nation’s history of religious liberty.

The Rev. Matthew C. Harrison, president of the St. Louis-based Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, said in a statement, "This action by HHS will have the effect of forcing many religious organizations to choose between following the letter of the law and operating within the framework of their religious tenets."

It is distressing that our government would opt for a coercive and unfair regulation that requires us to make such an impossible choice.

As a church, we have always opposed the use of drugs and procedures that are abortion-inducing. This mandate will include coverage of birth-control products, which can cause a child to stop developing in the womb. Under this new governmental regulation, though, just by simply following our beliefs, we will face penalties under law.

The fines that would be imposed on religious institutions under this mandate could be massive. For an example of just how devastating this could be, consider that Catholic Charities alone has 70,000 employees. If all of them have health insurance, then noncompliance with the mandate could result in a $140 million fine the first year. Instead of this money going to those truly in need, it will be going to the Obama administration.

One of the central missions of any church is supporting the less fortunate in our communities. With this mandate’s redefinition of a religious institution, many charitable operations will effectively be driven out of business. Under the new law, if you are a Lutheran charity and you provide help to or hire non-Lutherans, you cease to be a religious institution. The same goes for Catholics, other Protestant denominations, and all other faith-based organizations. This will have a devastating impact on large groups of religious people, as well as millions of others who are either influenced or helped by our work with the poor.

Also, instead of being able to devote full attention to the care of the needy, a large chunk of these organizations’ time will be given over to religious background checks on those they serve and hire.

The importance of this cause supersedes the divisions among our various religious communities. We will stand with our religious brothers and sisters of all faiths in opposing this mandate. We remain united in our efforts to restore religious freedom to our country and end this un-American assault on one of our nation’s core values.

Joe Watkins is a board member of Conscience Cause, pastor of the Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church, the oldest African American Lutheran church in Philadelphia, and a former associate director at the White House Office of Public Liaison who serves as a political analyst on MSNBC. E-mail him at jwatkins@consciencecause.com.

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