Bishop Dewane: Religious Freedom Under Attack Print this post

by Bishop Frank J. Dewane, Diocese of Venice in Florida

As many are aware, a recent Health and Human Services mandate will require Catholic organizations and business owners to provide abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization and contraception services through their health insurance plans. The newest version of the mandate would require health insurance companies, even those paid by religious organizations, to provide these “services” for “free.” Have you ever heard of free services from an insurance company? Neither had the Catholic Bishops’ Conference; and so we reject the President’s proposal as an accounting gimmick and continue to identify the real issue—an assault on religious liberty and freedom of conscience.

Many editorials and letters to the editor have missed the mark on why the Church does not accept the Presidents proposal. Further straining the nature of the debate, many have offered up very poor definitions of liberty and freedom, at least as they relate to religion and the First Amendment.

Perhaps an actual definition of religious liberty would be helpful. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines liberty as “freedom from arbitrary or despotic control.” Further, freedom is defined as “the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action.” Forcing religious organizations to provide that which violates its beliefs is a coercive and despotic attempt to control the internal workings of those organizations and their core beliefs. Religious freedom is more than worship or holding beliefs; it’s about living those beliefs in all of life.

Some complain that the issue of religious liberty is “overshadowing” the issues of abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization and contraception. Religious liberty—and freedom of conscience—is at the forefront of the debate because it is enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution, and abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization and contraception are not! Allowing the government to coerce a religious organization to violate the tenets of its faith is unconstitutional and a dangerous precedent for all people, not just Catholics.

The claim has also been made that since many Catholic organizations are designated as non-profits, and are therefore tax-exempt, that they should just accept the government’s intrusion and should do the governments bidding. Tax-exempt status should not be used as a bulls-eye. To be clear, the Catholic Church and other non-profits are given tax-exempt status because of the overall societal good they produce; often doing what government is unable to do. The Diocese of Venice, for instance, serves tens of thousands of people every year who would otherwise be left in tremendous need. If that tax-exempt status is removed, it might be perceived as a victory for abortion and contraceptive advocates, but it is a devastating loss to the poor, sick, hungry and dying.

It is important to remember that the Church’s charitable work is motivated by the same Faith that rejects the use of abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization and contraception. The government is attacking the spiritual foundation which motivates Catholics to serve the public good (e.g. charities, universities, schools, hospitals, food pantries, low-income housing, pregnancy centers, etc). In doing so the government completely misses the point of what constitutes faith and what makes a Catholic organization truly Catholic.

Many believe that this contentious debate over whether or not religious organizations should be forced to provide morally objectionable “services” is a “Catholic issue.” Not so! The Catholic Church has been joined by members of many other faith communities. Additionally, in a letter to the HHS Secretary, attorneys general of ten states, including Florida’s attorney general, wrote, “Should this unconstitutional mandate be promulgated, we are prepared to vigorously oppose it in court.” Sounds like the Church is not alone in fighting this mandate! When a government coerces a religious organization, or any group, against its will and in violation of the Constitution, many people see the writing on the wall—it is only a matter of time before they are next.

The only complete solution is to eliminate the mandate. There is a lot on the line, and for that reason our voices will not be silenced until justice is restored. The Church has a long history of fighting injustice and persecution. If the mandate is pursued, be assured that the Church will resist coercive despotism once again.

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