Religion Freedom Week, as we wait for Dobbs

It’s the feast of Saints Thomas More and John Fisher, marking the beginning of Religious Freedom Week as observed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It’s just a week, not a fortnight as was the case back in the early days of the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate. Still, a call to a dedicated time of prayer and action with religious liberty in mind is always timely.

A lateral move?

I write as I await the Supreme Court’s decision in the abortion-related Dobbs case, due within days. A draft of the Dobbs opinion hostile to Roe v. Wade was leaked some weeks ago, leaving me pondering just how low we’ve set the bar for being pro-life. Nothing in the draft either states or implies that the Court is ready to recognize the fundamental right to life of all human beings from the moment of conception without regard to age, health, or condition of dependency. The draft, if it holds, dumps the “issue” back to the states. Having spent a few decades making frequent trips to New Hampshire’s State House as a citizen speaking out on the right to life, I know that such a Supreme Court decision would be a lateral move at best.

Even so, the call is clear as I contemplate the likelihood of a Dobbs decision during a week celebrating religious liberty: prayer and action, now and always, wherever the law stands, whether or not our voices are welcomed in the public square.

Inspiration

The USCCB has suggestions for eight daily prayer intentions during the coming days. It’s not a comprehensive list. Only a few of our challenges can be addressed in such a short period of time. Treat each intention as inspiration for future work: thoughtful prayer, focused action, steadfast witness.

  • June 22: walking with mothers in need
  • June 23: pray that Christian witness in the face of attacks on churches may convert hearts to faith in Christ. Threats and vandalism to churches, including acts taken in the wake of the leaked Dobbs draft, underscore that this is an urgent challenge.
  • June 24: adoption and foster care
  • June 25: opposing taxpayer funding of abortion
  • June 26: religious freedom in China
  • June 27: pregnancy resource centers
  • June 28: conscience rights for health care workers
  • June 29: free speech. This means not only praying for protection of First Amendment rights, but also “that Christians will have the courage to proclaim the gospel of life and dignity for all with kindness and clarity, even in the face of adversity.”

Challenge: grow beyond unjust laws

My bishop has offered many examples of that kindness and clarity. I wrote in some detail at Leaven for the Loaf about what he said at one particular Mass during one of the first Fortnights for Freedom. An excerpt will serve here.

We can and we do lobby for just laws, and for the overturning of those laws, the repeal of those laws, that are unjust. But whenever [such an effort] is unsuccessful, we are called to make those laws obsolete.… Such must be the unjust law – that we have grown beyond such things…[to] a time where adherence to God’s law has turned us away from discrimination, murder, inordinate living, disordered belief, and the shame of a people who no longer value the true dignity of human life. Let us grow beyond.

Bishop Peter Libasci, Diocese of Manchester, homily for Fortnight for Freedom, June 2013

All these years later, I stand by what I wrote in the same post, reflecting on what Bishop Libasci had said.

I looked around the Cathedral as the Bishop spoke. I saw no cameras or press. Perhaps a hundred people were there.   In a secular environment, I’d have said that the man needs an agent. This was a church, though; a community of faith was present. Everyone there is the “agent,” so to speak, charged with getting out the message. In how many other churches will the same message be delivered in the coming days? From there, who knows where it could go? Small beginnings, perhaps, but with great potential and great hope.

Leaven for the Loaf, 6/23/13

The Mandate Takes a Hit. That’s Not Enough.

Crossposted from Leaven for the Loaf.

Nine months after taking office, five months after assuring the Little Sisters of the Poor that they could quit fearing fines, the Administration of President Donald Trump has announced a rollback of the HHS contraceptive mandate. (See here for my earlier coverage of the mandate.)

From Fox News:

The Trump administration on Friday announced a major rollback of the ObamaCare contraceptive mandate, granting what officials called “full protection” to a wide range of companies and organizations that claim a “religious or moral objection” to providing the coverage. 

The mandate, which has been the subject of multiple legal challenges, has required employers that provide health insurance to cover contraceptives. Under the existing policy, churches and houses of worship were exempt, while religious-affiliated groups that object had to allow a third-party administrator or insurer to handle birth control coverage. The 2014 Hobby Lobby decision expanded exemptions to for-profit “closely held” corporations.

But under the new policy unveiled Friday, the Trump administration is expanding the protections to any nonprofit group, non-publicly traded company, or higher education institution with religious or moral objections — and making the third-party provision optional for groups with “sincerely held” religious beliefs.

 (Full Fox News post here.)

I’m pleased that the President has followed through on a commitment he could have carried out his first day in office. Better late than never. Maybe he has no roots on this, and it took time for the people around him to put the ducks in a row. Notice the arm’s length language of the news report: Trump administration did thisofficials said that

I’m grateful. That’s simple courtesy and a measure of positive reinforcement. But I’m not going to grovel for recognition of my rights of conscience and religious liberty that should never have been abrogated in the first place. It’s not as though the President is doing me a favor.

Actually, today’s action does sound like someone thinks there are favors to be dispensed. The news coverage speaks of exemptions, protection, and rollback. Selected entities are added to the list of exempt organizations. No mention of the First Amendment, at least in the initial breaking news update. It’s the First Amendment that’s at issue, which is something the mandate’s supporters have ferociously denied since 2012.

Why does the mandate stand at all? Why is there still anything from which to be exempted?

The contraceptive mandate came out of Obamacare’s definition of birth control for women as “preventive care.” In a manner beyond anything the rankest sexist could have dreamed, Obamacare made it government policy that women are broken and need to be fixed. The normal functioning of a woman’s body was something to be “prevented.” Contraception was shifted from being a matter of choice to being a matter of public policy, forcing employers who chose to offer health insurance coverage to be involved in employees’ birth control decisions. Nothing ever put employers into employees’ bedrooms quite like the contraceptive mandate.

It’s to the everlasting credit of the American Catholic bishops that they recognized the mandate’s threat to religious liberty. Among other things, they knew that the Catholic health care system – which provides care to more women than any other provider in the nation – could be fined out of existence by the mandate.

The mandate originally came with exemptions for some politically-favored companies and organizations. Hobby Lobby and other plaintiffs later earned a Supreme Court victory that was extremely narrow, releasing closely-held companies from the mandate. President Trump told the Little Sisters of the Poor earlier this year that they could consider themselves free from fear of being fined for not wishing to pay for insurance coverage for employees’ birth control. At least fifty other lawsuits are pending against the mandate; I don’t know how many just became moot.

Today, the mandate took a serious hit. It’s still staggering around, though. The only way to kill it is to abandon the policy that gave rise to it in the first place. Stop treating the suppression of women’s fertility as “preventive care.” Stop expecting “free” contraception. When “free” means compelling financial support from people with religious objections to contraception, then “free” is too expensive.

Today’s action from the Trump Administration is long overdue. It’s the biggest hit on the mandate since Hobby Lobby. The mandate’s foundation remains in place, though. For religious resisters to the mandate, First Amendment rights are still at risk. May today be a spark to renewed assertion of those rights.

“Advancing the Freedom to Serve”: Archbishop Lori has ideas for the next President

The Obamacare HHS contraceptive mandate prompted the American Catholic bishops a few years ago to speak unanimously in strong terms about the policy’s undermining of religious liberty. Since then, the bishops’ conference has made a point of trying to keep the Catholic faithful apprised of our religious freedoms and some threats those freedoms are facing.

If you tweet, follow @usccbfreedom. If you prefer email, sign up at usccb.org/freedom. Read what Archbishop Lori of Baltimore published today via Catholic News Service about steps the incoming federal Administration can do to respect the rights of all Americans to practice their faith at all times, not just an hour a week inside a designated building.

President-elect Trump has the opportunity to ensure that people of all faiths can continue to do their good work in serving their communities without having to violate their consciences or face crippling fines or onerous lawsuits. Our hope is that the next administration will ensure that Americans remain free to serve.

Read the full post for the steps Archbishop Lori recommends. Repeal of the contraceptive mandate is just one of them.