Catholic Bishops Plea with President Obama (Again) for Religious Freedom

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

In a letter sent to President Obama this afternoon, the new president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, makes an “urgent plea” to the president of the United States to grant temporary relief to religious organizations who, come tomorrow, are subject to the Department of Health and Human Services coercive abortion-drug, contraception, female-sterilization employer mandate.

In the letter, Kurtz points out:

Your Administration recently relaxed the rules governing individual health plans under the Affordable Care Act, so Americans whose current plans have been canceled may claim a “hardship exemption” from some requirements.

And yet Americans “who, due to moral and religious conviction, cannot in good conscience comply with the HHS regulation requiring coverage of sterilization and contraceptives” have been “left out in the cold,”the letter explains.

The president’s health-care law “harshly and disproportionately penalizes those seeking to offer life-affirming health coverage in accord with the teachings of their faith,” Kurtz writes.

Kurtz writes:

This mandate includes drugs and devices that can interfere with the survival of a human being in the earliest stage of development, burdening religious convictions on abortion as well as contraception. To date, at least 90 lawsuits representing almost 300 plaintiffs have been filed to challenge this mandate, and the Supreme Court has agreed to hear two of these cases in its current Term. Most lower courts addressing the issue have found merit in the plaintiffs’ claims and granted at least temporary relief, while some courts have denied relief or have yet to act.

Many Catholic and other nonprofit institutions caring for those in need through education, health care and other services are not exempt from the contraceptive mandate.  For reasons articulated by the courts, the Administration’s final rule of July 2013 does not alleviate the burden on their religious freedom.

Please consider, then, the result of your Administration’s current policies.  In the coming year, no employer, large or small, will be required to offer a health plan at all. Employers face no penalty in the coming year (and only $2000 per employee afterwards) for canceling coverage against their employees’ wishes, compelling them to seek individual coverage on the open market.  But an employer who chooses, out of charity and good will, to provide and fully subsidize an excellent health plan for employees – but excludes sterilization or any contraceptive drug or device – faces crippling fines of up to $100 a day or $36,500 a year per employee.  In effect, the government seems to be telling employees that they are better off with no employer health plan at all than with a plan that does not cover contraceptives.  This is hard to reconcile with an Act whose purpose is to bring us closer to universal coverage. 

The result is a regulation that harshly and disproportionately penalizes those seeking to offer life-affirming health coverage in accord with the teachings of their faith.  The Administration’s flexibility in implementing the ACA has not yet reached those who want only to exercise what has rightly been called our “First Freedom” under the Constitution. 

I understand that legal issues in these cases will ultimately be settled by the Supreme Court. In the meantime, however, many religious employers have not obtained the temporary relief they need in time to avoid being subjected to the HHS mandate beginning January 1.  I urge you, therefore, to consider offering temporary relief from this mandate, as you have for so many other individuals and groups facing other requirements under the ACA.

If the president of the United States is going to selectively use Pope Francis and the Catholic Church’s love and the service for the poor as cover – even as he has consistently insisted they are liars or otherwise misled/dismissed/ignored their quite vocal (legally supported) pleas on health care and conscience — the very least the president of the United States could do is to protect the religious freedom of those who provide vital social services that help the poor, the vulnerable, and buttress civil society. (It also just happens to be part of the oath Barack Obama has taken twice now.)

Perhaps this new-year plea might get more coverage than Cardinal Dolan’s victory (for now) on behalf of some New York Catholic agencies before Christmas. As I expect the sound of crickets to give way to more faux war-on-women rhetoric as the Supreme Court oral arguments in the Hobby Lobby case approach in the coming year, I have my own little plea.

Dear Readers: Anyone, of any or no religious faith, who believes in protecting religious freedom in America — for our sake and for the sake of those who don’t have that liberty — please share the letter and the facts on Facebook, over e-mail, at your party tonight or dinner tomorrow. Americans’ ignorance on this issue (the result of a dedicated, patronizing campaign inconsistent with both the bipartisan consensus we had had on conscience and some of the president’s own early lip service to it) is bliss for those who seek to use regulatory power to narrow religious liberty. Combat the ignorance before it sets in again, with the likes of Planned Parenthood leading the charge against wood-furniture-making Mennonites and everyone else who finds himself in court to protect religious freedom in America.