A Lesson from History

A few days ago, I said that the campaign to undermine the Church’s opposition to the contraception mandate would eventually involve this:

there will be “gotcha” moments where the advocates will lead the media to agencies that are already complying with similar mandates under protest, and imply that we don’t really mean what we say.

I can rarely predict the future with accuracy.  In this case, I was proven right within two days.

The Times has “discovered” that some Catholic agencies have been forced to comply with New York State’s contraception mandate law.  By this, they undoubtedly mean to imply that the HHS mandate is no big deal, since we “can live with it”.

The Times didn’t report the history of the New York State law, but it is instructive to recall it here, if we are going to understand what is happening now.

The “Women’s Health and Wellness Act” was signed into law in 2002.  It was a wide-reaching bill that dealt with many areas of women’s health care.  The Church very much wanted to support the bill, except for one thing — it contained a requirement that all employee health insurance plans cover contraception.  In the years leading up to its passage, the Church tried to convince the legislature to provide our agencies with a reasonable exemption.  In the end, we failed, and the law was passed with a very narrow exemption that is virtually the same as the one in the HHS mandate.

The Church, together with a number of other religious groups of other faiths, challenged the law in court, arguing that it violated our religious freedom.  We took the case all the way up to the New York State of Appeals, where we lost.  We even appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which refused to hear our case.

Faced with a final judgement that the law would stand, Church agencies were in a quandary.  Some chose to comply under protest.  Others sought refuge under exemptions that were available under federal law.  But one truth remains — the Church continues to maintain that the law violates our religious liberty, even though many of our agencies reluctantly obey it.

In the real world, that is what happens when someone is faced with a law that they consider unjust.  I wish that I didn’t have to pay for abortion on demand with my tax dollars.  But what choice do I have, but to pay my taxes grudgingly?  I am the primary support for my family, and I don’t want to be fined, go to jail, or be disbarred. Just because I pay my taxes, doesn’t mean that I consent to abortion on demand or approve of it.  I bitterly resent that my tax dollars are being used to pay for the killing of unborn children.  I have advocated for corrective legislation.  It is, and always will be an injustice, even though I unwillingly obey the law.

This is an important point.  We need to learn from history.

Back in the day when there were established churches, everyone was required to belong to that church.  If they didn’t belong, they were penalized in various ways, the least of which was being forced to pay tithes (which is a tax or penalty — you pay it to the government, which uses it to fund a religion that you don’t believe in).  If you want a flavor of how this worked in practice, check out the ugly history of the Irish Penal Laws.

Of course, everyone had to obey or risk being sent to jail, so they grit their teeth, grudgingly paid their tithes, and managed to survive by keeping their complaints to themselves to avoid any trouble.

Then, they couldn’t wait until they could emigrate to America to be free from all that.

Hence the First Amendment, and the similar provision of every single state constitution.  Hence our reverence for pioneers of religious liberty like Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, and William Penn.  Hence our opposition to the HHS mandate, and similar laws.

We need to learn from this history.  The fact that one has no choice but to obey an unjust law, because of fear of the consequences, doesn’t render the injustice any less galling and oppressive.


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One Response to “A Lesson from History”

  1. RLM says:

    “The fact that one has no choice but to obey an unjust law, because of fear of the consequences, doesn’t render the injustice any less galling and oppressive.”

    What about the spiritual consequences? How do you answer God for your cooperation with evil? What about the fact that said obedience to an unjust law is now being used against the Church on a national level? It seems like religious entities in NY weren’t considering all of the consequences – only those they’d have to bear in their own immediate future.