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God and Government: In Whom Shall I Trust?

12/28/2012

In response to a law suit filed by the Archdiocese of New York to seek relief from the onerous Health and Human Services Mandate that all employers provide contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs and devices, a U.S. federal judge has ruled against the federal government’s attempt to dismiss the challenge, which invokes the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion. The Department of Health and Human Services had said that the Archdiocese could not seek relief because the Mandate, which has already been entered into the Federal Register and is therefore active law, will be modified by unknown future changes. It is fitting to recall that our country’s motto is pointedly not “In government we trust.” Indeed, as Judge Brian Cogan states in Archdiocese of New York v. Sebelius, “The Bill of Rights itself, and the First Amendment in particular, reflect a degree of skepticism towards governmental self-restraint and self-correction.” More concretely, Judge Cogan continues, “There is no ‘trust us, changes are coming’ clause in the Constitution.” Our country cannot stake the inestimable value of religious freedom, with its connection to the God in whom we trust, on political hearsay.

Yet the present administration has openly argued that plaintiffs claiming violations of their religious liberty have no case because the government has “promised” that the existing law will not be applied to the plaintiffs and will be modified in the future with a so-called accommodation. In other words, the Health Human Services mandate for employers and insurers to cover contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs and devices is and would remain active, unjust, coercive, and oppressive, violating the religious liberty and conscience rights of a large segment of the nation’s people, attacking the very core of our society by impugning the First Amendment to our nation’s Constitution. Meanwhile, citizens would have no right to challenge the mandate because the government made a promise to change it. Thankfully, a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. recognized this absurdity in Wheaton College v. Sebelius, issuing an order that requires the government to fulfill its “binding representations” and to file status reports with the court every 60 days to demonstrate its progress. The NCBC had signed on to an amicus brief for this case.

In addition to the natural and constitutional injustice of this administration’s ill-advised attempt to curtail the conscience protections and religious freedom of the American people, the practical ramifications of the HHS mandate on faith-based ministries and social services are harmful and regrettably familiar to religious congregations with international ministries. For example, the Little Sisters of the Poor, who provide daily care for the elderly poor in many U.S. cities, would certainly not be able to withstand the $100 per day per employee fines they would face to safeguard their religious beliefs and are contemplating abandoning their ministry in the U.S. It is a choice they have already been forced to make in the past, abandoning their apostolic works under oppressive governments in China, Myanmar, and Hungary. It is disturbing that the United States of America is on a path that would add it to that same list, yet many other religious ministries also face a similar choice here in “the land of the free.”

How is it that the government does not seem to fully grasp—or perhaps to fully care about—the grievous implications that would flow from such a violation of constitutionally protected rights? One can only speculate. Yet the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Viganò, warns that “great danger to the future of religious freedom lies with religious persecution that appears inconsequential or seems benign but in fact is not. . . . The issues and reservations . . . about the health care mandate dealing with artificial contraception, abortion-inducing drugs, and sterilization are very real, and they pose grave threats to the vitality of Catholicism in the United States.”

In this Year of Faith proclaimed by our Holy Father, we are reminded that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:16), which is a way of affirming that our practices, our living, and our works must manifest what we believe. As Benedict XVI forthrightly states in his Motu proprio “On the Service of Charity,” the Church’s charitable activities have a unique character that flows from our Faith and “must avoid the risk of becoming just another form of organized social assistance.” Faith is not worship alone, and the actions of faith ministries cannot be properly understood outside of it. Thus, as George Weigel has written in an article on the HHS Mandate, “In claiming and defending religious freedom in full, the Church is defending the American understanding, with which Catholic teaching is in full accord, that ‘religious freedom’ cannot be reduced . . . to a privacy right to certain lifestyle choices—in this case, the choice to worship. Religious freedom in full is far more than freedom to worship without civil liability, although it surely includes that.”

Encouraged by these recent successes in the courts, there is renewed hope that the government of our great nation will recognize its rightful role as the defender of our natural right to religious freedom, not its usurper. There are now more than 110 plaintiffs in 42 lawsuits (the NCBC has signed on to amicus briefs in four of them) brought by schools, colleges, universities, charities, hospitals, volunteer associations, businesses, and dioceses, with more on the way, claiming their constitutional right to the free exercise of religion. The Apostolic Nuncio has summarized it best in the conclusion of his November speech: “What God has given, the servant state does not have the competence to remove. And God has given us the truth of His Son, the truth who gives us the most precious freedom of all, which is the desire to be with God forever! This is our destiny, and this is why religious freedom . . . is of paramount importance. It is essential to the exercise of our other rights and responsibilities as citizens of the Two Cities.”

In God we trust, not the federal government.

 

John A. Di Camillo, Be.L.

NCBC Staff Ethicist