A Fortnight for Freedom began Thursday night — two weeks of prayer and education for the preservation of religious freedom, designated by the Catholic bishops of the United States. But it’s just not bishops who are Fortnighting. Lay Catholics are, perhaps, the most important voices involved, particularly in the political realm. Maureen Ferguson, a spokesperson for the Catholic Association, which is playing a pivotal role on the political-education front, is among the women defending freedom in the face of a mainstream narrative that has the Obama administration saving her from reproductive oppression.
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TCA has a 14-day to-do list for those who want to actively engage in defense of religious liberty, and today encourages Catholics to call their Congressmen asking for conscience protection. Ferguson answers some of my questions about the effort and the role of the laity in the defense of freedom.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Is this Fortnight for Freedom anything more than GOP mobilization, led by bishops taking a bludgeon to a proper distance between God and Caesar?
Maureen Ferguson: That is the story line the White House has been writing, but the reality is the opposite. The Obama administration is imposing its morality — and political agenda — on the Church. The Fortnight is an effort to insist that Caesar shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion. That’s a bipartisan, ecumenical campaign — to preserve and protect the Constitution.
#more#Lopez: Who is the Catholic Association to claim to speak for Catholics? Aren’t you just another group of people who want to defeat the president in his reelection bid? Other Catholics think differently, just ask Joe Biden or the mother of your hated HHS mandate, Kathleen Sebelius!
Ferguson: We are a group of Catholics who seek to answer the bishops’ call for the laity to come forward and defend our right to practice our faith. In their pastoral document “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” the bishops repeat this call to the laity seven times. Archbishop Lori recently gave a beautiful homily in which he said “we must never shrink from entering the public square to proclaim the person of Christ, [and] to teach the values that flow from faith and reason.” That is a good summary of our mission — to be a voice for that faith and reason in the public arena. Certainly there are Catholics out there who are promoting, even authoring, this unjust policy, which is truly unfortunate. There are also organizations who claim to speak for Catholics, but have always been cover for the abortion industry.
Lopez: You won’t be satisfied with anything the Obama administration does vis-à-vis the HHS mandate, will you?
Ferguson: Simply put, the mandate must be rescinded, entirely. The attempt at an “accommodation” has proven to be unworkable, as even Sister Carol Keehan, CEO of the Catholic Health Association and a supporter of the president’s health-care bill, has made clear. The truth is that our nation has a long-standing tradition of including broad conscience protections in federal health-care law. The conscience protections we’re asking for are the same in principle and effect to those included in President Clinton’s health-care bill — language that was supported by Senator Ted Kennedy and even then-senator Joe Biden. That’s not asking too much. It’s why one of the Catholic Association’s action items is to encourage people to call their congressmen today and ask for conscience protection. It’s a bipartisan, ecumenical ask.
Lopez: Why do you insist there is more to the religious liberty issue than this one mandate, which the Supreme Court could wind up making a moot point?
Ferguson: First it’s important to distinguish between the individual mandate and the employer mandates. Even if the individual mandate is struck down, we will still be left with the employer mandates on preventative services, so the HHS mandate will stand under that scenario. But even if the entire law goes down, threats to religious liberty remain. Examples include Catholic Charities being pushed out of providing adoption services simply because they believe it is best to place a child with a mother and a father, and discrimination against Catholic humanitarian workers because they decline to refer for abortions. This administration has an alarming record valuing ideology over freedom, so much so that even two of the justices this president appointed ruled against him in the recent Hosanna-Tabor unanimous ruling against the administration’s unconstitutional view of its role vis-à-vis religion.
Lopez: This “war on women” narrative can be compelling. Given the vote in the House to defund Planned Parenthood, cuts Paul Ryan and his party would make if they had their way, there really is cause for poor women in need of some basic reproductive medical care to be concerned, isn’t there? Planned Parenthood does abortions, but it does other things too. You’re free to have your personal views on contraception, but not everyone shares them. And if you’re so pro-life, shouldn’t you be pro-contraception, especially for single, poor women would be financially unable to raise their children? Isn’t your anti-mandate, anti-contraception view a harsh and undemocratic one?
Ferguson: We’ve actually conducted in-depth polling at the Catholic Association on this issue and found that the majority of women are opposed to the HHS mandate. This is probably because women tend to support the First Amendment, and many women also happen to be religious believers. As many have noted, there is no shortage of access to contraception. One can purchase it for about $9 per month, or get it for free through Title X programs, and nine out of ten health plans already cover it. Women see through the phony “war” rhetoric.
Lopez: What’s the most disingenuous aspect of this “war on women” talk?
Ferguson: Many women are offended by the notion that the Obama administration presumes to speak on their behalf. Check out the website WomenSpeakforThemselves.com for a good perspective. There are very real threats to women and girls worldwide, and this crass election-year campaign does them a real injustice.
Lopez: What about health care? You might be celebrating if the Supreme Court knocks down the president’s health-care plan next week, but what then? What’s the Catholic Association response to the plight of the uninsured and the poor?
Ferguson: There are many worthy policy proposals to increase access to health care and control costs which don’t violate the First Amendment rights of Americans.
Lopez: If you’ve got a grievance against the president, you are helping Republicans in an election year. How does the Catholic Association maintain an independent identity, as a Catholic civic organization rather than an arm of the Republican party or the Romney campaign?
Ferguson: Americans don’t surrender their constitutional rights just because it is an election year. And, again, it is President Obama who picked this fight in an election year — he chose the timing, not the bishops. Catholic hospitals, charities, and educational institutions were not exactly sitting around looking for new heavy-handed government mandates and crippling fines to be imposed upon them.
Lopez: Your husband was in Congress, an institution that rates pretty low in public-opinion polls. I’m sure there is plenty cynical to say. But what kind of unique perspective does it give you on the value of what you’re doing now, civic engagement?
Ferguson: We are called to be both authentically Catholic and American. Civic engagement frequently involves sacrifice, but it is necessary to do our best to serve our Church and our country.
I’ve seen firsthand how important and effective it is for people to be in touch with their elected officials to encourage those who agree with us, and to seek to politely persuade those who disagree. Which is why today’s TCA action item is a crucial one: Call Congress and ask for conscience protection. The Capitol Switchboard number is (202) 225-3121.