The Corner

The one and only.

Cardinal Dolan on Assault on Religious Freedom: Not a Slippery Slope, But a Ski Slope


There was an oddly timed Memorial Day piece in the New York Times appearing to dismiss the voice of the Catholic Church – and specifically Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York — on religious freedom. It actually bolsters the Church’s case.

The Times explained:

Even as Cardinal Dolan insists that requiring some religiously affiliated employers to pay for contraception services would be an unprecedented, and intolerable, government intrusion on religious liberty, the archdiocese he heads has quietly been paying for such coverage, albeit reluctantly and indirectly, for thousands of its unionized employees for over a decade.

For two decades, the Archdiocese of New York has been paying into a benefit fund that offers contraception to about 3,000 employees who belong to the mandatory union for health-care workers in the state, 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East. If you provide health care in New York, you sign a standard 1099 contract. You sign it or you don’t provide health care in the Empire State. The late Cardinal O’Connor fought it and lost. The archdiocese, not wanting to disrupt the health-care services these employees were providing, complied, “under duress.”

As the Times itself acknowledged, while joining a lawsuit eleven months ago seeking relief from the Obama administration’s abortion-drug, contraception, sterilization Department of Health and Human Services mandate, the Archdiocese of New York was honest about the fact that it didn’t have a perfect record on insurance coverage. It’s ”99 percent” clean, but, not perfect, Cardinal Dolan said on his Sirius XM Catholic Channel radio show today. That’s not a surprise given the poisonous secularist air we breathe, that slouches toward sidelining real religious faith. At the time, he explained, he wanted to make sure people heard that from the archdiocese, knowing that it would be used to accuse the Church of hypocrisyIt took the New York Times eleven months to tell the story, he observed, commenting that it is “not news” now. 

It does, however, remind us how urgent it is that we insist on conscience protections in our laws, and that the Obama administration respect religious freedom as we’ve known it, as the Constitution and federal law protects it. This is of critical concern not just in regard to contraceptive insurance, but also in policymaking regarding abortion and protecting human dignity at the end of life.

And the timing of the Times piece may just have something to do with the HHS mandate’s deadline for compliance from the likes of the Archdiocese of New York being August 1, when the “safe harbor” they were granted for a year expires, as well as the upcoming Supreme Court rulings on marriage (which promises more religious-freedom challenges for those who won’t be blessing same-sex marriages in their churches, for one thing). 

On the Tuesday episode of his radio show, Dolan addressed the issue in a tone of both sorrow and resolve, emboldened just weeks before the bishops’ second Fortnight for Freedom prayer and education effort in the run-up to Independence Day. Talking about the Fortnight plans on another radio show, Baltimore’s Archbishop Lori asserted: “We are really at the outset of a movement that includes other religious faiths and communities, and a lot of other people of good will, to really make sure that religious freedom does not disappear from this country.”

In response to the Times piece, Cardinal Dolan recalled that when deciding to sign onto a lawsuit against HHS over the “preventative services” mandate, archdiocesan officials warned him “you need to know that there might be one or two groups that under our Catholic Charities umbrella . . .” He explained how it happened: ”Sadly, 20 years ago, my predecessor fought it tooth and nail” and ultimately “compl[ied] under duress.”

He called the situation “odious” and argued that it “only points out the urgency” that we fight this latest government overreach and  “why we need to stand firm” on threats to conscience rights. 

In a statement, the spokesman for the diocese, Joe Zwilling, points out that the Times piece ”incorrectly equates the health care benefits of the members of Union 1199 – including those 1199 employees at Catholic facilities – with the Health and Human Services mandate that improperly attempts to define the Church’s religious ministry and could force religious employers to violate their conscience. The Constitution and other provisions of federal law prohibit the government from imposing the mandate on the Archdiocese.  A labor union is not subject to the same constraints as the federal government in this regard, and so the fact that 1199 requires these benefits as part of its plan does not excuse the government’s violation of the Archdiocese’s federal rights.”

A friend close to the situation adds that we best not forget “the most offensive aspect of the HHS mandate is not just the money flow, but the coerced speech . . . The HHS mandate would require us to list contraception and emergency contraception in our own plan booklets, endorsed by us, distributed by us, explained by us, counseled by us.”

This union story the Times highlighted Monday is a window into the  “ski slope,” as Cardinal Dolan put it Tuesday, that has lead to the point where the federal government would coercively mandate that Americans provide not just “birth control” employee insurance coverage — as the Times leads with – but sterilization and abortion-pill coverage.

Further addressing the connections between the story of union power politics and the HHS mandate fight, Dolan said: “If we give in now, they will not leave us alone. No. That never happens.” Twenty years ago, it was a union. Today it is the federal government, in a regulation it has manipulatively demogogued into utter confusion.

In a piece in his archdiocesan paper last week, Philadlelphia’s Archbishop Charles J. Chaput further clarified our current moment:

America’s Catholic bishops started pressing for adequate health-care coverage for all of our nation’s people decades before the current administration took office. In the Christian tradition, basic medical care is a matter of social justice and human dignity. Even now, even with the financial and structural flaws that critics believe undermine the 2010 Affordable Care Act, the bishops continue to share the goal of real health-care reform and affordable medical care for all Americans.

But health care has now morphed into a religious liberty issue provoked entirely – and needlessly — by the current White House. Despite a few small concessions under pressure, the administration refuses to withdraw or reasonably modify a Health and Human Services (HHS) contraceptive mandate that violates the moral and religious convictions of many individuals, private employers and religiously affiliated and inspired organizations.

Coupled with the White House’s refusal to uphold the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, and its astonishing disregard for the unique nature of religious freedom displayed by its arguments in a 9-0 defeat in the 2012 Hosanna-Tabor Supreme Court decision, the HHS mandate can only be understood as a form of coercion. Access to inexpensive contraception is a problem nowhere in the United States. The mandate is thus an ideological statement; the imposition of a preferential option for infertility. And if millions of Americans disagree with it on principle – too bad.

He added: “Anyone who thinks that our country’s neuralgic sexuality issues can somehow be worked out respectfully in the public square in the years ahead, without a parallel and vigorous defense of religious freedom, had better think again.”

We need to wake up, the brother bishops emphasize, at a time when they have demonstrated an unprecedented unanimity about the critical importance of opposition the federal government’s encroachment on religious liberty. The HHS mandate is, indeed, unprecedented. It’s a culmination and triumph of much that Church officials, among others, had long warned about, on more than legal fronts. (Humanae Vitae comes to mind. And Church officials were also, make no mistake, complicit in its undermining. Which, again, underscores why we must “stand firm” now, as Dolan put it.)

Addressing the “ski slope,” among other examples, Cardinal Dolan pointed to legislation under consideration in Washington State that would require abortion insurance, conscience be damned, in the name of “parity” with maternity care. So much for “safe, legal, and rare.” As Dolan has suggested before, it increasingly looks like abortion has become a preference in the United States. Even with some encouraging poll numbers, what is it that we’re tolerating in the life of our nation and its laws?

Speaking of wake-up calls, remember Kermit Gosnell? Remember the reality of late-term abortions in America it helped unmask? Remember court testimony and videos, revealing that reality?

“Who is doing the imposing here?” Cardinal Dolan asked earlier today about the ongoing and heightened threats to religious liberty in America. These aren’t fights of Catholic bishops’ choosing. But, in the case of this federal mandate, it’s one where they’ve rose to the occasion, on behalf of all Americans who value real religious freedom in America. 

The day after Memorial Day, we remember those who gave their lives for this freedom the American Constitution preserves. Will we rise to the occasion and simply raise our voices in support of those who would preserve it, in opposition to those who attack it and dismiss its defenders?

 Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. She serves on an advisory pro-life commission for the Archdiocese of New York. 


Sign up for free NR e-mails today:

Subscribe to National Review