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Where is the first amendment?

I am angry. Very angry. My government has demanded (not “requested”) that I violate my conscience. On Jan. 20, Kathleen Sebelius, head of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), announced that all institutions — schools, hospitals, clinics, etc., (even those conducted by religious groups opposed to the measures) — must cover in their insurance plans contraceptives, sterilizations and abortifacients. This policy was endorsed and approved by the president.

The policy allows a “religious exemption,” but one which is so narrow that it would cover very few people — only those whose administrators and beneficiaries were all of the same religion. The exemption would cover convents and monasteries, but not Catholic grade schools, high schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, clinics, orphanages, food kitchens, etc. These Catholic institutions hire people of other faiths to help them in their mission and they serve people of other faiths as well as Catholics. So the institution must offer insurance plans that provide medical procedures that are considered immoral. The Catholic Church teaches that abortions and true contraceptives are always wrong to use and that sterilizations are often so. I as an individual Catholic may not engage in wrong actions — nor cooperate in encouraging others to do so. “Forcing persons to cooperate in actions they judge to be evil is evil.” (E. Christian Brugger)

Shortly before the public announcement of this decision, President Barack Obama phoned Archbishop (and Cardinal Designate) Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, to tell him about the announcement. He also told the archbishop that there would be a grace period of a year before the decree went into effect. (The archbishop’s comment later was, “The president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences.”) The irony in all of this is that the primary proponent of this decree, Kathleen Sebelius, claims to be a Catholic. Nancy Pelosi, House minority leader, a Catholic, stated, “I strongly support this action to expand access to fundamental, basic health care.” And Catholic Vice President Joseph Biden has been an ardent supporter and defender of the measure.

As a Catholic I am bound by the decrees of Vatican II, an ecumenical council. And this council, summarizing the traditions of the church, declared, “In the depths of their conscience, men and women detect a law which they do not impose on themselves but which holds them to obedience, a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of men and women. According to it they will be judged.” (GS #16) And yet as a member of a Catholic university I am told by civic authority now that I should be willing to violate my conscience. “Forcing persons to cooperate in actions they judge evil is evil.”

I had always thought that the United States, in the light of the Bill of Rights, respected religious freedom, that in fact it was the first of all of our rights. The First Amendment to the Constitution reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Years ago, some people in Florida killed chickens as part of their worship ceremonies. Laws were passed by civil authorities to prevent this. The United States Supreme Court said the laws were unconstitutional, violating the First Amendment. Around the same time, a Native American was fired from his government job because he engaged in smoking peyote as part of a religious ritual. This was considered as violation of substance abuse laws. The Supreme Court reversed that judgment in the light of the first amendment.

I am trying to understand why my government wants me to violate my conscience. Some say it is in order to curb Catholic institutions which are a threat to health care policies. One in every six patients in the United States is cared for in a Catholic hospital. More than 50 Catholic health care organizations exist with over 750,000 employees. In Catholic schools, there are more than 150,000 professional educators and over two million students. And more than 200 Catholic colleges and universities serve over 900,000 students. The government wants to get control of their health care. Some people, more radical, claim that the aim of the government is to cause the very demise of Catholic schools and hospitals, because they are in conflict with current national directions.

What is to be done? I do not know at the moment. I am waiting for indications from our bishops. One thing I do know is that I will not violate my conscience. Never.

Father John A. Leies, SM, STD, is president emeritus of St. Mary’s University and was formerly head of the Theology Department there.

 



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