Catholics and First Amendment Rights: The Battle for Religious Freedom

Opinion

on January 25 2012 5:04 PM
A protester shows a pilgrim a condom who in turn shows him a cross during a demonstration against what they claim is the expensive cost of the papal visit in central Madrid coinciding with the second day of the World Youth Day meeting
A protester (R) shows a pilgrim a condom who in turn shows him a cross during a demonstration against what they claim is the expensive cost of the papal visit in central Madrid coinciding with the second day of the World Youth Day meeting August 17, 2011. Pope Benedict arrives in Spain on Thursday for a four-day visit to a traditionally Catholic country that has become highly secular. REUTERS

President Barack Obama sure does have a knack for contradicting himself.

During last night's State of the Union address, he said: I believe what Republican Abraham Lincoln believed: That government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more. 

Great, if he believes it. But his administration's actions last week seemingly opposed that statement.

On Friday, the president announced that, as part of Obamacare, religious institutions -- churches exempt -- will now be required to offere contraception, abortifacients, and sterilizations without a co-pay in their employee health care packages.

As a Catholic, I believe the government can't surely be better than I at navigating the waters of my own conscience and interpreting the teachings of my own faith. Yet this is precisely what the new government initiative does: Requires religious institutions to violate its teachings of faith, and its conscience.

The decision was hailed by the Obama administration as striking an appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services. The problem is that the mandate does not respect religious freedom.  

Liberal and conservative Catholics alike have taken great umbrage with it; understandably, as many religious institutions, particularly Catholic ones, have moral objections to all of the proposed requirements.

Cardinal-elect Timothy Dolan, president of the United States Council of Catholic Bishops, or USCCB, released a statement immediately calling the decision a foul ball and an overreach, given the Supreme Court's 9-0 decision in favor of religious freedom earlier this month.

Sean Michael Winters, a writer for the National Catholic Reporter, and an avid Obama cheerleader since 2008, vowed he would never vote for him again, accusing the president of turning his back on his Catholic friends. Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, Sr. Carol Keehan, president and chief executive officer of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, and Father John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, to name three.

These people have scars to show for their willingness to work with you, Winters wrote, to support you on your tough political fights. Is this the way you treat people who went to the mat for you?

Even non-Catholics recognized the threat this decision brings upon all religions.

Secretary Sebelius is stating that people who have religious convictions against contraceptives or particular types of contraceptives that are abortifacients will have a one-year reprieve before they will be forced to pay for health insurance for that which they find unconscionable, said Richard Land, president of the Nashville-based Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission.

The danger is this: If the government can require one religion to go against their beliefs, they most certainly can do the same for others. The argument that Catholics are not being required to take contraceptives themselves, but only offer it, is moot. The offering of a treatment we don't believe in undermines the identity of Catholic hospitals, universities, and businesses.  

What's more is the president is asking us to fund medical practices we don't believe in. This is a violation of First Amendment rights, which states, of course, that the government cannot make a law interfering with the expression or practice of a religion.

Thankfully, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is on the case and are optimistic the mandate will be deemed unconstitutional. But now is the time for all individuals of faith and goodwill to be awake and alert.

For years, courageous bishops and priests have been standing at the pulpit, taking to the airways, penning op-eds explaining the teachings of our faith and vowing to defend them. Many of them do so tirelessly, in spite of the strong opposition they frequently receive. Now, more than ever, they need the encouragement and support of their listeners.

As Cardinal-elect Dolan wrote in the Wall Street Journal this morning, This latest erosion of our first freedom should make all Americans pause. When the government tampers with a freedom so fundamental to the life of our nation, one shudders to think what lies ahead.

All individuals of faith should know their faith and be able to defend. Because if Obama, or any other government official, errs in their assumption of religious rights and freedoms -- like his administration is doing here -- we can be prepared to let them know: Religious beliefs are one of many things citizens can handle on their own.

Meg McDonnell is a Phillips Foundation Robert Novak Journalism Fellow working on a project about young Americans and marriage trends. 

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