Game On: Catholic Bishops Launch ‘Full-Court Press’ over Religious Liberty
The NCAA men’s basketball tournament gets under way today, but the nation’s Catholic hierarchy is launching a full-court press of another sort.
Top leaders of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) met in a closed-door session in Washington, D. C., this week. When they emerged, they issued a declaration of political war.
In a statement released yesterday, the church hierarchy said it “is strongly unified and intensely focused in its opposition to the various threats to religious freedom in our day.” To take on this “problem,” the USCCB said it plans to lobby the White House and legislators, explore the possibility of litigation and wage a crusade in the media.
Unsurprisingly, the number-one threat cited by the USCCB is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services regulation “that would force virtually all private health plans nationwide to provide coverage of sterilization and contraception – including abortifacient drugs – subject to an exemption for ‘religious employers’ that is arbitrarily narrow, and to an unspecified and dubious future ‘accommodation’ for other religious organizations that are denied the exemption.”
All of those points are just plain wrong.
Religious organizations are broadly exempt from the HHS mandate, and thanks to an Obama administration compromise, religiously affiliated organizations don’t have to provide direct coverage of birth control for their employees if it troubles them morally. Instead, insurance companies will provide this necessary component of comprehensive health care. Plus, not a single person is forced by the regulations to use birth control or become sterilized – they’re merely options for people who want or need them.
Not only is the USCCB misunderstanding the “religious liberty” issue and misrepresenting the facts, it is also completely out of touch with the thinking of most Americans. A new survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 56 percent of Americans see no threat to religious liberty in the country today.
Even a majority of Catholics don’t agree with the USCCB on this issue. The survey found that 65 percent of Catholics said publicly held corporations should not be exempt from the HHS requirement. Almost 60 percent of Catholics said religiously affiliated social service agencies, colleges, hospitals and privately owned small businesses should also be mandated to offer health care plans that cover contraception. (Forty-seven percent said churches themselves should be required to provide contraceptive coverage. I wonder what the bishops would say to that?)
The bishops, however, aren’t going to back down until they get what they want – and according to The Washington Post, the HHS regulations are just the beginning. The bishops’ wider effort to “defend religious freedom” will go well beyond reproductive issues to a host of other matters. Concerns will include restrictions for religious organizations on college campuses and limits on religious groups renting public schools for worship services.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a USCCB spokeswoman, told The Post that the bishops’ new campaign will include media outreach, lobbying lawmakers and priests sermonizing on the topic in parishes.
“It’s a full-court press,” she said.
To play on Sister Walsh’s basketball metaphor, the bishops are way out of bounds and it’s time somebody blew the whistle. The church leaders are committing an intentional foul and a referee ought to call them on it.
The bishops’ religious liberty is not threatened in the United States, and what they don’t seem to understand is that they aren’t really fighting for freedom of conscience – they’re fighting for the idea that religious “corporate conscience” is more important than individual rights.
The rights of the people in charge shouldn’t trump the rights of the people they’re in charge of, no matter what the bishops say. In this case, the bishops don’t share the same perspective as most of the people they’re in charge of. How long will it be before they’re no longer speaking for anyone?