Samuel W. “Dub” Oliver is the president of East Texas Baptist University, which last week joined the more than 100 plaintiffs who are suing the Department of Health and Human Services over its religious-liberty-eroding abortion-drug, contraception, and sterilization mandate.Oliver talked to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the suit.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Isn’t the HHS mandate a Catholic problem? What do Baptists have to do with it?
SAMUEL W. OLIVER: The coverage of this issue has been overwhelmingly focused on Catholic concern with the contraceptive mandate.
But I must point out that this is not just a Catholic issue. While Protestants have different perspectives regarding contraception (both from Catholics and from each other), we are united with Catholics and people of all faiths in the conviction that a religious group should not be forced to provide services to which they have deep moral objections.
We believe that the federal government is obligated by the First Amendment to accommodate the religious convictions of faith-based organizations of all kinds, Catholic and non-Catholic.
LOPEZ: Should going to court to make political points really be a priority of a university? It’s not like the government is asking you to make abortion services available on campus. What business is it of yours what medical services your employees need or want?
OLIVER: The administration’s mandate covers emergency contraceptives such as Plan B (the morning-after pill) and ella (the week-after pill), which even this administration admits can interfere with a human embryo.
The most recent science tells us that these drugs may cause abortions. But, under the administration’s mandate, our school will be required to buy insurance so that our employees can obtain these drugs for free, as if these drugs were no different from penicillin. We believe that is wrong.
We are going to court to defend religious liberty. We would rather not have to do so. There are many other ways that we would choose to spend our time and resources. However, the administration refuses to listen to our concerns or accommodate our religious views. Frankly, it is hard to believe that a religious institution has to take the Department of Health and Human Services to court to protect something guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
LOPEZ: Do you respect the women you employ? How can you when you’re denying them their freedom — or so was my understanding of the issue from the president?
OLIVER: This issue is not about women’s health. This is about whether the government can get away with trampling on the rights of religious organizations.
It’s ridiculous to claim that organizations like ETBU don’t care about women’s health. As far as I am aware, no religious group objects to most of the preventive services in the mandate. In fact, we already cover preventive services, including contraceptives, under our employee health plan. We simply object to a few drugs, which the government calls contraceptives, because we believe they cause abortions.
Additionally, I’ve heard it suggested that this mandate is necessary to increase access to contraception. The president has said that close to 99 percent of women use contraception. I don’t know if that number is true, but surely if the president is quoting this number, he knows there is no problem accessing these drugs.
This issue is not about women’s health; it is about religious liberty. It is about whether the government will force religious people and organizations to do something they believe is wrong. Good people everywhere want women to have access to quality health care. What we are asking is that our religious views be respected.
LOPEZ: Why sue now? Because you want Mitt Romney to be president?
OLIVER: We have not taken this step lightly. East Texas Baptist University and others with whom we are associated have been attempting to see our concerns addressed since the final rule was first released in August 2011. We have submitted comments on the rule to HHS, we have written letters to President Obama asking his administration to respect the religious liberty guaranteed in the Constitution, and we have advocated with lawmakers to protect our liberty.
We cannot, in good conscience, comply with the HHS mandate.
LOPEZ: Why are we not hearing more about this issue?
OLIVER: Two reasons, I think. First, the president and his administration have said repeatedly that they will take care of all the concerns of religious organizations at some time in the future. They keep insisting publicly that our religious views will be respected. However, the rule still exists as originally published in August 2011. Their public statements do not match their actions. Second, most in the media have portrayed this as the Catholic Church being against contraception for women.
If people understood the threat to our religious liberty, they would be much more engaged.
LOPEZ: What might Roger Williams have had to say about this?
OLIVER: As you probably know, Roger Williams fled from Massachusetts and founded Rhode Island because his religious views were not tolerated in Massachusetts. This is one of the reasons Baptists are so sensitive to coercive government actions that infringe upon religious liberty.
LOPEZ: What do you wish every American voter might consider about your school, the situation it is in because of the HHS mandate, and religious liberty itself?
OLIVER: I hope that people would see East Texas Baptist University as a deeply sincere Christ-centered university seeking to live out its mission and vision.
Think about it: If the government can take this step, where will this road end? Today, the administration is trying to force us to provide our employees with abortion-causing drugs. What’s next?
If the government can force Catholic monks to dispense birth control, what can’t the government do? If the government can decide that East Texas Baptist University is not religious enough to have the right to religious liberty, what can’t the government do? If this administration can just decide that religious beliefs are less important than its chosen policy goals, what can’t it do?
These questions are alarming. And that is why people from all across the country are joining together out of concern that this mandate threatens to erode one of our most precious rights, our religious liberty, guaranteed to us by the First Amendment.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.