One part of the HHS mandate sadly goes into effect today.
You probably know all about the mandate by now. It’s the decree from the Secretary of Health and Human Services that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requires employer health care plans to include contraceptive services for women, including drugs called abortifacients. Although, in America’s finest tradition, the bill allows an exemption for religious reasons, it presumes to define just what a church’s ministry must be to qualify, a dramatic and unprecedented intrusion into the integrity of all faiths. My brother bishops and I – in welcome collaboration with other religious leaders – think that this mandate is wrong and misguided and have tried to work with the Administration to correct it.
What’s most troubling about the HHS mandate is that it carves out a religious exemption that is so narrowly drawn that most Catholic agencies – including Catholic Charities, hospitals, nursing homes, universities, and potentially many others – would not qualify.
How does a Catholic or other religious entity qualify for this exemption? It must be a non-profit organization under certain IRS guidelines, and must meet all of the following criteria:
- The inculcation of religious values is the purpose of the organization;
- The organization primarily employs persons who share the religious tenets of the organization;
- The organization serves primarily persons who share the religious tenets of the organization.
Got that? The federal government is graciously allowing your parish church to consider itself Catholic. But, not much else would qualify.
A Catholic hospital founded and still sponsored by nuns, striving to carry out our Savior’s command to care for the sick? Sorry, not Catholic enough. No religious freedom here! After all, its purpose is not the inculcation of religious values, and it hardly asks for a person’s religion before admitting a patient.
A Catholic Charities homeless shelter, providing a bed, a shower, and a nutritious meal? Sorry, not Catholic enough. No religious freedom here! After all, it serves all seeking help, regardless of their religious beliefs. (Would the government prefer us to turn away anyone who can’t produce a baptismal certificate and recite the Nicene Creed?)
A Catholic high school founded and still run by a religious order, which has proudly educated young men, preparing them to succeed in college, in the work place, as husbands and fathers? Sorry, not Catholic enough. No religious freedom here! After all, the student populations is more than 50% non-Catholic.
Yes, the Archdiocese of New York has joined dozens of others in filing a lawsuit against the administration and HHS, arguing that the mandate is unconstitutional. And, yes, the administration has granted a one-year reprieve to religious agencies whose conscience would be violated by this mandate. (That’s right – the government acknowledges that this will be a problem for many religious agencies. But their response is, essentially, “too bad.”)
What will happen when the year is up?
I suppose one option would be for those agencies to stop offering health insurance to their employees, and pay a $2000 per employee penalty. While some would argue that the agencies would, in fact, save money by choosing this option, it hardly seems to be the right and just way to treat your co-workers, does it?
Another option is to continue to offer health insurance, but, honoring our conscience, not include these objectionable services. There would be a $100 fine per day for each person who qualified for the coverage. Let’s assume that an agency has 50 people for which it would be subject to this penalty. At $100 per day, per person, over the course of the year it would pay a penalty of $1,825,000. ($100 x 50 people x 365 days). That’s a steep penalty from the government in order to try and convince religious agencies to turn their back on their conscience. That’s money that will then not go to serve those in need. Many of our services could not survive this heavy penalty.
A third option, I suppose, is to capitulate and accept the strangling mandate…I don’t want to go there. We just finished a Fortnight for Freedom, and the saints we honored – Saint Thomas More, Saint John Fisher, Saint John the Baptist, Saints Peter and Paul – would not want us to go there, either.
Over the course of the coming year, the effort to protect religious liberty and the freedom of conscience will continue. In the end, this is not about bishops, it is not about Catholics, it is not about contraceptives. It is about the ideals our nation was founded upon: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. You can’t do much better than the First Amendment to the Constitution. The founding fathers got it right. The HHS mandate gets it wrong. We are fighting to correct that wrong, in order to make sure that religious freedom continues for the generations to come after us.