It involves an attempt by the government to compel Catholic institutions that serve those of many faiths and no faith to violate Catholic teachings within the Church’s own institutions, which is both an intrinsic injustice and a gross intrusion of state power into the Church’s evangelical mission.
And it involves a violation of the civil rights of individuals, who will be compelled to act against their conscientious convictions, “whether in their sponsoring of, and payment for, insurance as employers; their payment of insurance premiums as employees; or as insurers themselves.” This utter disregard for religious convictions and the rights of conscience is also, the bishops note, “unprecedented in federal law, which has long been generous in protecting the rights of individuals not to act against their religious beliefs or moral convictions.”
Thus those who expected the bishops to try and find some 50-yard line of agreement with the administration, a middle ground on which the Church’s institutions would be protected while individual Catholic employers would be left to the tender mercies of HHS, were proven exactly wrong: The bishops intend to defend religious freedom in full, and that defense will be all-in.
“United for Religious Freedom” concludes with a commitment to “accept any invitation to dialogue with the Executive Branch to protect the religious freedom that is rightly ours” — a formulation indicating that they will not come to any such further conversation as a supplicant, but as a defender of American tradition. The statement expresses support for a legislative remedy to the depredations of the HHS mandate, which, one assumes, will now focus on the Fortenberry bill in the House of Representatives. Finally, the statement reiterates the bishops’ determination to pursue a remedy in the federal courts, which is their likeliest path to success. The reference to both the Constitution and “federal laws that protect religious freedom” suggests that the conference knows it has a strong case under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and will vigorously pursue it.
In sum, the bishops have rebuffed calls for a tactical retreat; the analysts who have not grasped the sea-change in perspective of the bishops’ conference have been confounded; the Catholic Lite brigades have been challenged to think again about the gravity of the theological and constitutional issues involved in the mandate; and those who have supported the bishops thus far have been affirmed in their work.
There will be no compromise here, for there can be no compromise of first principles. Those who understand that will gather their energies and continue to defend both Catholic and American tradition.
— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.