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ChurchWatch 02/09/12

American Religious Freedom Under Fire

It was a watershed moment that I never thought I would see in my lifetime -- the President of the United States recently signed off on a Health and Human Services ruling that says that under ObamaCare, religious institutions that run charities, hospitals, and schools will be required by law to provide and pay for insurance coverage that includes contraceptives, abortion-inducing drugs, and sterilization procedures. If they refuse, they will be hit with fines in the millions of dollars, which would force many to close their doors forever.

In other words, the United States government just trampled on our First Amendment right to freedom of religion.

As Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal wrote, "...the Catholic Church was told this week that its institutions can't be Catholic anymore."

Catholic bishops across America responded quickly. Priests in approximately 70% of U.S. parishes came forward to read strongly worded protests from the church's bishops.

"We evangelicals must stand with them," declared Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship. He spoke of the impact that this dictate will have on not only their ministry, but all ministries. "...all true Christians believe that the taking of human life in utero, whether surgically or by abortifacient drugs, violates the basic human right to life. ... Many bishops have already declared that they will not obey this unjust law."
 
"The penalty for such a move would be severe. Catholic hospitals, universities, and other organizations would be forced to pay punitive fines ($2,000 per employee) for refusing to purchase insurance that violates the teachings of their church."

But Catholic institutions won't be the only ones affected by this mandate. According to Colson, "...Prison Fellowship, which employs 180 people, could not morally purchase insurance for its employees that covers abortifacients. Nor could we afford the fines we would incur."

For some faith-based institutions such a law would drive them out of existence.

Voices from across the political spectrum have begun rising to call for a reversal of the decision. Tim Kaine, the former Democratic Party chairman and governor of Virginia said, “I think the White House made a good decision in including a mandate for contraception coverage in the Affordable Care Act insurance policy, but I think they made a bad decision in not allowing a broad enough religious employer exemption.”

Senator Bob Casey, a Catholic Democrat from Pennsylvania, has written to President Obama asking for a reversal. “It’s a question of whether or not we’re going to allow — as we should — an institution that has a religious mission to make decisions that are consistent with their faith tradition,” Casey said. “Unfortunately what this does is impose upon them rules that I don’t think we should impose upon an institution that has a faith mission.”

Senator Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew who is an independent from Connecticut, tweeted Wednesday that he also opposed the administration’s mandate.

Michael Gerson of the Washington Post explained the social ramifications of such a mandate that go beyond the constitutional questions. "If federal policies make it impossible for religious nonprofits and hospitals to work in conjunction with federal, state and local agencies in providing social services, millions of poor and vulnerable Americans — Catholic and non-Catholic, religious and nonreligious — would suffer. The task of building alternatives would cost hundreds of billions of dollars — and then lack the distinctive human touch provided by religious groups."

Noonan believes that there was no reason for the President to make this ruling -- except ideology.

"The conscience clause, which keeps the church itself from having to bow to such decisions, has always been assumed to cover the church's institutions."

"The ruling asks the church to abandon Catholic principles and beliefs; it is an abridgment of the First Amendment; it is not acceptable. [Catholic Bishops] say they will not bow to it. They should never bow to it, not only because they are Catholic and cannot be told to take actions that deny their faith, but because they are citizens of the United States.

Colson agrees that this is a line crossed that must be challenged.

"Folks, we have reached the point where Christians may be called to actively defy the government of the United States. This is a shocking and sobering statement, but I’m sorry to say it’s true."

Stay tuned. This issue will not go away. It speaks to who we are, and who we will be as a nation. If not reversed, and soon, it will be a central message of this year's presidential election.

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