News has been spreading in recent weeks about the letter read to Catholic parishioners all over the country on Jan. 29. This letter was read in response to the Obama administration’s recent decision to require faith-based employers to provide health insurance policies for their employees that cover medications that Catholics consider immoral, including contraceptives, sterilization and the morning-after pill.
The letter varied slightly from parish to parish, but in general it strongly condemned the actions of the Obama administration to force faith-based groups to act in a manner that contradicted the teachings of their faith.
No doubt there are some people out there who think the administration is justified in making this decision. After all, there has been a massive push in recent years to encourage the use of contraceptives. Even Pope Benedict — who has strictly opposed the use of birth control throughout his time in the Catholic Church — has stated in a 2010 interview that in the case of Africa and the AIDS epidemic, the use of condoms could be seen as “a first assumption of responsibility” toward reducing the infection rate of HIV resulting from high levels of extramarital sex.
However, the issue at hand is not the morality of birth control. (Some Catholics no doubt disagree with the Church’s official stance on the subject.) This issue specifically challenges the free exercise clause in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
The letter written by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, in part, read as follows:
“In so ruling [that all employers must provide such coverage], the Administration has cast aside the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, denying to Catholics our Nation’s first and most fundamental freedom, that of religious liberty. And as a result, unless the rule is overturned, we Catholics will be compelled either to violate our consciences, or to drop health coverage for our employees (and suffer the penalties for doing so).”
The Church is not confined merely to the block of land upon which a building rests. All of the faiths that have contributed to the religious fabric of the United States over the past 235 years of its existence play valuable roles in the life and health of communities all around the country. Food banks, hospitals and clinics, homeless shelters, community centers, legal services, international aid organizations and a myriad of other operations exist because religious organizations staff, maintain and operate them for public benefit.
The trick to these organizations is that they are still a part of the religious institutions that created them, and as such are operating their services directly as a function of their religious beliefs and practices. The moral judgments these organizations make in how they organize, support and maintain these operations are not merely business decisions, but are integral to their faith.
It would be wrong for me to say that the government doesn’t have the power to regulate certain activities. After all, it would be wrong for a religious group to pop up, start kidnapping people for human sacrifices and get away without punishment by claiming that the First Amendment protected them. This has been true ever since the Supreme Court case Reynolds v. United States, in which the court upheld the prohibition of polygamy.
But that power has been abused over time. In Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association, for example, the Supreme Court allowed the United States Forest Service to build a road through a forest used as a tribal worship and burial site.
Given that such power has been abused before, the next logical question to ask is as follows: where does this end?
Sure, preventing human injury or enforcing marriage contracts may be in the interest of the government. But when does such a doctrine of encroachment stop?
Will the state decide that religious or moral objections to military service are invalid because it has an overriding interest in maintaining a level of military manpower?
Will the state subvert the Yoder v. Wisconsin decision that allows for religious and home-based schooling, and instead claim that it alone has the authority to educate children?
By claiming that the Catholic Church cannot make those kinds of judgments with regards to the health benefits it provides to employees, the Obama administration has specifically challenged the freedom of conscience religious organizations need to operate in the public square. While not all Americans support the Church’s position, the Church’s freedom to act upon that position must be protected.
If it is not, be careful — the right to act upon something that affects your conscience could be next.
David Giffin is a first year Masters in Theological Studies student at Candler School of Theology from Charleston, Ill.