“Never before has the federal government forced individuals and organizations to go out into the marketplace and buy a product that violates their conscience,” stated Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York and the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “This shouldn’t happen in a land where free exercise of religion ranks first in the Bill of Rights.”

Serious constitutional concerns have been consistently raised about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA, known popularly as “ObamaCare”), passed by Congress in 2010. Twenty-seven states have sued the federal government on the grounds that Congress does not have authority to require their citizens to purchase a specific product or service, in this case, health insurance. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear some of these cases in March and presumably will rule on the constitutionality of the PPACA’s so-called individual mandate by the end of June.

Beyond this fundamental constitutional objection, another aspect of the PPACA recently took a disturbing turn. In August 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) directed virtually all employers to include coverage of contraceptives, sterilization procedures, and abortion-inducing pharmaceuticals without copayment in their employee insurance policies. The HHS mandate has an extremely narrow conscience exemption that will not include the vast majority of religiously affiliated employers and institutions, including hospitals, colleges, schools, and social service organizations which may object to these services on moral grounds.

So, not only does the PPACA require all Americans to purchase health coverage, but Americans can be forced to pay for―or to provide as employers and insurers―things their faith may teach are wrong.

The Catholic Church, along with faithful of other religious communities, protested. The Administration has not backed down. In fact, on January 20, 2012 President Obama called Archbishop Dolan to inform him that the conscience exemption will not be broadened. Enforcement of the mandate simply will be delayed until August 2013, at which time insurance coverage of “preventive services” must include all FDA-approved forms of contraception, including sterilization and some abortion-inducing drugs.

“In effect,” Dolan said publicly in response, “the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences.”

Opponents of the HHS mandate stress that it is very troubling for the government to attempt to force members of one of the largest religions in the world, the Catholic Church, to directly participate in what their Church considers grave moral evils. If Catholic institutions can be forced to behave in contradiction to their moral beliefs, pay massive fines to the government, or close their doors, no other group can expect to have its “free exercise” of religion protected, either.

The last two weeks have seen a firestorm of protest, from the Catholic Church and from others seriously concerned about First Amendment rights. The Catholic bishops released statements denouncing the HHS decision, read from pulpits nationwide. Orthodox, Protestant, Evangelical, Jewish, and Muslim leaders have spoken out against the mandate, noting that if “free exercise” is not respected in this case, other abuses of religious liberty and freedom of conscience surely will follow. As chancellor and CEO-elect of Reformed Theological Seminary (one of the largest Protestant seminaries in the country) Michael Milton wrote, “This is not a Catholic issue only. It is not a contraception issue. It is a religious liberty issue. It is an American issue.”

Members of the current Administration, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have begun referring to the First Amendment right to “free exercise” of religion as “freedom of worship.” This is dangerously incomplete. “Free exercise” of religion is more than the ability to choose the house of worship one frequents on weekends. Free exercise is the ability to live your faith and morals seven days a week.

Members of Congress have introduced legislation intended to prohibit the federal government from requiring a provider to provide, participate in, or refer for a specific health care service contrary to the provider’s religious beliefs or moral convictions (the “Respect for the Rights of Conscience Act,” or House Resolution 1179/Senate Bill 1467). But while Congressional leaders work to defend the rights of religiously affiliated organizations, they must not forget the rights of individual Americans, either.

Americans must send the federal government a clear message: Government must not abrogate the conscience rights of employers and insurance providers, and neither should it abridge the First Amendment rights of individual Americans by forcing them to participate in something to which they morally object. It was a small step from government forcing Americans to “go out into the marketplace” and buy health care to, as Archbishop Dolan said, “go out into the marketplace and buy a product that violates their conscience.”


2 thoughts on ““We Have a Year to Figure out How to Violate Our Consciences”

  1. So what about Christian Scientists who don’t want to pay for life saving blood transfusions? How come that problem hasn’t come up in the standard conversation about this issue? If it truly is a religion freedom issue then why would they not fight for the right to refuse any medical treatment?
    I would understand if the argument was the constitutionality of paying for medical insurance based off of the government’s role in the country, but this is not the case of the contraception issue. No, the contraception issue is just a misogynistic interpration of religious beliefs.
    In the bible, the only thing stated about this issue is that a man shall not “spill his seed” outside of a woman. Nowhere does it say that a woman can not take something to prevent conception. It was however interpreted through the almost all male clergy that the burden of producing life fell onto women instead of men.
    Further more, the reason why men need to watch where they finish was because the need for reproduction. Last time i checked however, there was 7 billion reasons why we don’t NEED a higher population.
    If the conversation is about the governments role in deciding how people spend their money than the conversation should be about that, not women’s reproductive rights. No, I’m afraid that to me this is clearly an attack on women’s rights.
    Why else would contraception become the issue instead of other medical procedures that also go against religious value?

    PS- How constitutional is the “rape wand” for the ultrasounds for anyone who wants an abortion? If its the argument is about sticking to the constitution, stick to the constitution.

  2. Steven,

    The issue at stake with the current HHS mandate is indeed one of religious liberty and is broader than reproductive issues. The question is whether the federal government may force religious entities, and individual Americans themselves, to cover the costs of products and services to which they morally object in accordance with the teachings of their faith.

    This particular case (contraception, sterilization, and abortion) is only one of many possible problems which may occur in the realm of health care mandates. Similar foreseeable ethical problems might be hospitals and medical staff forced to participate in euthanasia or in the court-ordered withholding of nutrition and hydration from patients, against the stated moral principles of the medical facilities and personnel.

    The moral problems posed by government mandates of this type are not confined to reproductive issues. If this mandate is not struck down, we can expect to see implications for end-of-life care and palliative care of the sick and disabled as well.

    The Catholic Church’s position on artificial contraception and abortion has been consistent for 2,000 years. Early Christian writings from the first century A.D. document prohibitions against procured abortion and ingesting drugs to interfere with or to end the natural course of a pregnancy. This teaching is grounded both in Scripture and in the experience of the living faith of the earliest Christians at the time of the Apostles.

    The teachings of the Catholic Church on reproductive issues have never been “misogynistic,” but rather they support the equal dignity of woman and man as co-creators with God of a new human life through an act of spousal love. Catholic teachings defend the dignity of women and regard women’s capacity for nurturing new life as sacred and worthy of the highest respect. The Catholic Church’s position on contraception flows from a holistic understanding of the human person and of the marital act, in which the mutual love of the spouses and the procreation of children are both important.

    It is not necessary for a person to agree with any of these positions in order to be gravely concerned about the government mandating that those who do hold these beliefs actively violate them in order to comply with federal law.

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