The Corner

Our Continuing Religious-Liberty Problem, Courtesy of the Obama White House

Americans concerned with the narrowing of conscience rights in the United States have through Monday, April 8, to file comments with the Department of Health and Human Services in opposition to the latest iteration of the Obama administration’s abortion-drug, contraception, sterilization employer-insurance mandate under the president’s health-care law. Maureen Ferguson of the Catholic Association talked to National Review Online about the religious-liberty problem that remains for individuals and religious service institutions with moral objections to any and all of these requirements.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Why are Catholics, among others, still complaining about the Obama administration and religious liberty when the administration has presented an “accommodation” in writing?

MAUREEN FERGUSON: Sadly, because nothing has changed with respect to the HHS mandate, except that we’ve gotten closer to the full implementation of its onerous provisions, fines, and penalties. The latest announcement on the “accommodation” was merely a repackaging of the original accounting gimmick — political window dressing designed to hoodwink the press into reporting there had been a compromise. For the most part, the press complied. One sure piece of evidence that the administration didn’t give an inch is that the abortion lobby was praising the announcement hours before it was even made public. Clearly they were in the room when this “compromise” was hammered out. Not consulted were those whose very existence is at stake — the hundreds of charities, schools, hospitals, and other employers targeted by the mandate.

LOPEZ: If this is true, why isn’t there marching on the White House?

FERGUSON: One way to “march” on Washington is to do so figuratively with a pen and a stamp . . . or with a couple clicks on your computer screen. The Catholic Church, in conjunction with others, has launched a postcard campaign asking members of Congress to take action to protect our conscience rights from this administration’s unconstitutional actions. Ask your pastor if you haven’t already seen the postcards in the vestibule after Mass. Request a meeting with or call your member of Congress to ask them to co-sponsor a new piece of legislation, HR. 940, the Health Care Conscience Rights Act, introduced in March by Representative Diane Black. The speediest option is to visit the bishops’ website to send an e-mail to Capitol Hill.

LOPEZ: Is it true that you are looking to roll back contraception access?

FERGUSON: That’s the tired and disingenuous line coming from the Obama administration. The truth is: Contraception is already widely available for $9 per month at pharmacies, most insurance plans already cover it, and if cost is an issue, there are numerous government programs that already give it away for free. This is about the Obama administration trying to impose its political agenda on people of faith, and narrowing our right to the free exercise of religion to mere “freedom of worship.” President Obama clearly believes — and his Justice Department has argued in court — that entering the public square requires a willingness to leave faith at the door. This secularization is fundamentally at odds with the best traditions of pluralism and religious freedom that our country was founded on.#more#

LOPEZ: Why is that recently introduced Health Care Conscience Rights Act important?

FERGUSON: It’s important to put this bill into context — it is not just about reversing the HHS mandate, but about conscience rights more broadly. Representative Diane Black hosted a press conference on Capitol Hill last month highlighting the real-world impact on people’s lives of the Obama administration’s discriminatory policies on religious liberty. Giving powerful testimony on conscience rights was Cathy Cenzon-DeCarlo, a nurse from Mt. Sinai hospital in New York who was forced to participate in the abortion of a baby at 22 weeks gestation. She was threatened with the loss of her job and her nursing license, and to this day still suffers nightmares from what she saw and was forced to do that day. Another woman, Christine Ketterhagen, testified on behalf of her multi-generational family business, Hercules Industries, which is being threatened by massive government fines unless they change their health-insurance policies to include coverage of products contrary to their faith. Testimony was also heard from Sister Jane Marie Klein of the Franciscan Health Alliance who runs 13 hospitals in Indiana and Illinois. Her hospital system serves the poor, providing $171 million in uncompensated charity care last year alone, yet is threatened with crippling fines because the Obama administration has decided they are not religious enough to grant them an exemption from its mandate. 

LOPEZ: What are conscience rights, anyway?

FERGUSON: Funny, my eight-year-old son recently asked me the same question. As I was trying to explain it to him — unsure about whether he was following my detailed explanations of mandates, fines, and the First Amendment — he interrupted to say, “Mom, isn’t that why the Pilgrims left England to come to America in the first place?” Even a second grader gets it.

LOPEZ: How do we restart this conversation to get it out of the realm of scaring women about birth-control access?

FERGUSON: The bill introduced by Representative Black goes a long way toward that goal. It puts the HHS mandate into the larger context of conscience rights for all in the health-care sector. The press conference introducing the bill helped put a human face on the issue of conscience rights and how people in the real world are affected by these policies. We also need to remind people that the issue of conscience rights had always been a bipartisan issue, until President Obama chose to shatter that consensus. President Clinton’s health-care bill included broad conscience protections very similar to the language in the Black bill. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, designed to protect against policies like the HHS mandate, passed the House unanimously and the Senate on a vote of 97–3. 

LOPEZ: Is there any way advocates of traditional marriage can win the debate?

FERGUSON: Yes! People in 34 states have voted to affirm that marriage is the union of a man and a woman, and only four states have voted by relatively slim margins to change that definition. I think the conversation on marriage, and what it means in our society, is only just beginning. Many people have heard the slogans from the other side, and those sound bites have superficial appeal, but not many people have thought on a deeper level about the implications of redefining marriage. It is incumbent upon all of us to be able to better articulate why the government recognizes marriage at all — not to validate love between two people, but to foster stability for the next generation of its citizens. We need to have an open conversation about the consequences of redefining marriage and not give in to attempts from the other side to shut down debate by unjustly invoking the charge of bigotry.

Neuroscience is clear that there are basic biological differences between men and women, and as a result, fathers and mothers bring different benefits to children in parenting. How are children affected by growing up without a father or without a mother? What are the implications for religious liberty if marriage is redefined? Might marriage by the same logic also be redefined to include polyamorous relationships? What is the meaning of marriage? These are conversations we need to have.

LOPEZ: How can Catholics uniquely inform debates in Washington? Can they actually do that when Catholics are so divided among themselves?

FERGUSON: Catholics should have a voice in the public square and a seat at the table — especially in a debate that so deeply affects Church ministries. A lot of people don’t realize that the Catholic Church is the nation’s largest nongovernmental provider of health care, education, charity, and social services. And on a global scale, the Church is the largest charity on the planet and educates more children around the world than any other institution. The people in the pews are actually largely in agreement with Church leadership on the big issues of the day, and together, if properly energized, can have a great impact on these debates.

LOPEZ: Will Pope Francis really care about any of these problems of ours in the U.S., which pale in comparison to the problems of Nigerians?

FERGUSON: Well if the last pope’s cares and concerns are any predictor of the cares and concerns of the future pope’s, then the answer is a very hearty “yes.” Pope Benedict spoke on many occasions about the narrowing of religious liberty in the United States. In an address to our bishops last year he said, “It is imperative that the entire Catholic community in the United States come to realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres. The seriousness of these threats needs to be clearly appreciated at every level of ecclesial life. Of particular concern are certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion.” I think he recognized that much of the world looks to America as a beacon of religious freedom, and if our leadership is compromised, and if our foreign policy is actually exporting a very narrowly defined notion of mere “freedom of worship,” then that is of grave concern. There is a lot of continuity between the two popes and I wouldn’t be surprised to see this first American pope to continue to engage on these contentious issue, with the tender hand we’ve seen him use to help bring people together.

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