Athens, Georgia. February, 2012.
The Stuart statesman and historian, Lord Clarendon, once asserted that ‘clergymen…understand the least and take the worst measure of human affairs, of all mankind that can read and write.’ When in past years I read the views of left-wing Roman Catholic bishops on the problems of Appalachia or of right-wing Fundamentalists on the B-1 bomber, I appreciated the truth in Clarendon’s comment. Neither baptism nor ordination bestows prudence, practical wisdom, military expertise, or economic insight. With such cautions in mind men of my order do well to wade only with great care into practical matters that have a partisan or political component.
Nonetheless, a recent ruling by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), was such a grave imposition upon religious liberty, and was defended with such slender arguments, that I feel compelled to join in protest with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the Assembly of Canonical [Eastern] Orthodox Bishops, the Southern Baptist Conference, orthodox Jews, and many other religious leaders, including many of our fellow Continuing Anglicans.
In brief, HHS, by way of issuing regulations to govern employer-provided insurance, mandated that, in the words of the Orthodox bishops, ‘religious hospitals, educational institutions and other organizations will be required to pay for the full cost of contraceptives (including some abortion-inducing drugs) and sterilizations for their employees, regardless of the religious convictions of the employers.’ The Administration, after a firestorm of criticism, partially backed down, but not in a way that much reassures those concerned for religious liberty.
Men and women of good will can and do disagree about whether government ought to be empowered to regulate health care at all. And indeed men and women of good will and Christian conviction disagree about the morality of contraception. But it is manifest that religious liberty is slighted, conscience is pressured, and the First Amendment devalued by the proposed regulation of religious institutions, even if the regulations work indirectly through an insurer. No one is compelled to take employment with religious hospitals, schools, or similar institutions. Persons who take such employment should expect their employers to act according to their Churches’ long and clearly stated religious and moral convictions. To expect Roman Catholic hospitals, for instance, to pay for their employees’ contraceptives is unreasonable and, if compelled by state power, is wicked.
The current regulations, even before revision, did not generally mandate that Church institutions pay for employee abortions (except for abortifacient contraceptives). But there is no clear reason why the authority claimed by HHS could not in the future be pressed in such a direction. One suspects that only political calculation restrained an HHS secretary who already was willing to coerce religious organizations into paying for sterilizations and abortifacient contraceptives.
The Administration, by way of defending the recent decision, asserted its commitment to religious liberty. However, the Roman Catholic bishops cogently observed an apparent pattern of behavior to the contrary. Apart from the current issue, the Roman bishops note that,
Recently [the Administration] argued before the Supreme Court that religious organizations have no greater right under the First amendment to hire or fire their own ministers than secular organizations have over their leaders– a claim that was unanimously rejected by the Supreme Court as “extreme” and “untenable.” The Administration recently denied a human trafficking grant to a Catholic service provider with high objective scores, and gave part of that grant instead to a provider with not just lower, but failing, objective scores, all because the Catholic provider refused in conscience to compromise the same moral and religious beliefs at issue here. Such action violates not only federal conscience laws, but President Obama’s executive order assuring “faith-based” organizations that they will be able to serve the public in federal programs without compromising their faith.
Such examples should be of deep concern to all persons who care about religious liberty in general, and should concern Anglican Catholics in particular, whatever our partisan opinions.
In some states religious institutions have been forced to withdraw from involvement with adoptions because of a religiously reinforced assertion of the natural immorality of homosexual behavior. In other places religious institutions and private persons have been sued – and have lost – because of a refusal to grant the use of buildings or to provide services for same sex unions. The implication of such disturbing tendencies, already well advanced in some states (and further advanced in some countries), is that religious liberty may be qualified or heavily burdened for the sake of other supposed rights, sexual, behavioral, and social.
If we do not protest such tendencies vigorously and successfully, our liberties will decline. Our own Church discriminates between men and women by asserting that Holy Orders are intrinsically male in character. If last year the government would not protect a Lutheran school that sought firm control over its religion teachers, and this year seeks to coerce Roman Catholic institutions into doing what they believe to be intrinsically immoral, then Anglican Catholics must imagine how easily and quickly we might be on the firing line ourselves due to our sacramental beliefs.
I join our Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, Jewish, and Mormon friends, and our secular friends of good will, in insisting that HHS be stopped, now and decisively, in this matter and that similar anti-Christian discriminations be reversed. A halfway house compromise is not acceptable. We must insist firmly on full religious liberty and not accept a grudging grant of the minimum that a particular group of politicians deigns to bestow for the moment. And we must be vigilant to spot and oppose further encroachments on our religious liberty, whatever the partisan identification of the bureaucrats and politicians in question.