Look Below the Surface

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Religious liberty is subtly assaulted by recent court decisions and government mandates

by Supreme Chaplain Archbishop William E. Lori

Archbishop William E. Lori

Archbishop William E. Lori

During the second Fortnight for Freedom, which ended July 4, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its rulings on marriage, and the Department of Health and Human Services issued the final version of its “preventive services” mandate. Both developments were troubling, and both constitute affronts to religious freedom.

On the surface, it may seem as though religious freedom is not seriously threatened. For many people, the HHS mandate seems to be a fight about contraception and the intricacies of health insurance plans. And for many, the Supreme Court decisions — which went a long way toward legalizing same-sex “marriages” throughout the United States — seem to be a step in the direction of tolerance.

After all the shouting, we might be tempted to think that things will go back to normal. In other words, our churches will continue to function; our schools, hospitals, and charities will continue to fulfill their mission; no one will go to jail; and it will be business as usual. However, we need to look below the surface. Sometimes, the devil really is in the details.


Let’s begin with the impetus that the Supreme Court gave to same-sex marriage. The court all but struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and signaled to the states that they should consider passing laws redefining marriage to include people of the same sex. The 5-4 majority opinion further opined that those who defend traditional marriage do so because of bigotry. Century after century, civilized societies have held that marriage is between one man and one woman for the sake of children and for the common good. Christianity has even held that marriage between a man and a woman is a sign of the love of Christ for his Church.

Yet, with the stroke of a pen, the Supreme Court has held the content of that teaching to be a form of discrimination. This cannot bode well for men and women of conscience and for religious institutions that continue to teach the truth about marriage. Very likely, we are in for a rough ride.

Proponents of same-sex marriage say that religious freedom is protected because no minister with conscientious objections will be forced to “solemnize” such a union. But we need to look deeper. The legalization of same-sex marriage will have many ramifications for religious freedom. There will be pressure on the Church, for example, with regard to hiring practices, insurance benefits and the use of facilities. We can look for discrimination charges to be brought against those who speak out boldly in defense of traditional marriage. These and other threats are close at hand.

The religious freedom threats posed by the HHS mandate are also imminent. This mandate would require that virtually all employees be covered for certain medications and procedures that are contrary to Church teaching. These include the abortion-inducing drug Ella, reproductive counseling that extends to minors with or without their parents’ knowledge, contraception and sterilization.

Houses of worship and a handful of other religious institutions are exempt. Faith-based universities, hospitals and charities are not exempt, but instead were given an “accommodation.” This means that the proscribed services will be provided either through the insurer or a third-party administrator, but these “accommodated” institutions will still have to cooperate at some level in the provision of these so-called services. The final HHS rule made no

accommodation whatsoever for conscientious for-profit employers who have moral or religious objections to providing this kind of coverage.


What’s wrong with this picture? For one thing, the Department of Health and Human Services, using a part of the IRS code that was never meant to deal with the rights of conscience, has divided religious institutions and people into three categories: houses of worship, institutions of education and service, and conscientious individuals who want to run their businesses according to religious principles. If we look beneath the surface, we see what has been lost. In the 40 years since Roe v. Wade, the government has recognized the religious freedom of all three groups without distinction under an amendment to the Public Health Service Act. The much-needed legislation, authored by the late Democratic Senator Frank Church, had broad bipartisan support. Now, that has been swept away. By creating a three-tiered structure, the administration is regulating our God-given, constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom.

And HHS means business. Any religiously affiliated educational or service institution that fails to comply with the mandate faces crippling fines. If a diocesan Catholic Charities, for example, provides excellent health care coverage for its employees but does not include the so-called preventive services, it will be fined $100 per day per employee. Alternately, if the same Catholic Charities decided not to offer its employees any health care coverage, it would be fined $2,000 per year per employee. The way the fines have been structured tells us how intent HHS is on providing these services. Consider how easily the list of so-called preventive services could be expanded to include elective abortion and other procedures contrary to Church teaching.

Fortunately, many conscientious for-profit private employers have filed lawsuits against the HHS mandate; so far these lawsuits are faring well. With the publication of the final rule for non-profits, the lawsuits brought by many church-related institutions will now go forward. We should pray that these institutions will prevail in court, as intense study is currently underway to determine other responses to the final version of the HHS mandate.

Looking below the surface is important, allowing us to defend religious liberty in the public square and the ballot box. Even more important is prayer. I ask all members of the Knights of Columbus and their families to pray — and to pray intensely — for the restoration of religious freedom for U.S. citizens and for peoples throughout the world. May we strive to ensure that the light of truth and the lamp of freedom will burn brightly everywhere!