Last week, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued new federal regulations that run roughshod over the moral conscience of many Americans.
Promulgated under the health care reform act commonly referred to as "Obamacare," the new regulations would require an employer to have a health plan that covers sterilization and contraception — which could include drugs that cause abortion — as part of a larger set of "preventative services" for women. These practices are morally repugnant to many Americans — for some, because it directly contradicts their faith. For example, the doctrine of the Catholic Church, which includes roughly a quarter of Americans, explicitly prohibits such practices.
HHS, apparently recognizing the regulations' tension with religious belief, did include an exemption from the new regulations for a "religious employer." But close examination reveals that the exemption may actually cover very few religious employers. So the rule may force out of existence those social service and educational organizations that are the core manifestations of the Catholic doctrine to serve the poor and needy among us.
Indeed, the exemption defines a religious employer as a non-profit that inculcates religious values "as its purpose" and which primarily employs and serves those who share its faith. Many Catholic organizations — including schools, colleges, hospitals, and charitable organizations — could fail to meet this definition. Those organizations could be forced to choose between covering drugs, devices, and procedures contrary to church doctrine or closing their doors.
Why the exemption was drawn so narrowly is puzzling. An analysis by the Heritage Foundation finds that "the only reasonable conclusion is that the Obama Administration has purposefully targeted personal and institutional conscience on morally controversial issues such as sterilization, contraception and abortifacients."
It further concludes that "it is impossible to view the new guideline as anything less than a premeditated squeeze on conscience" — squeezed because being too religious or not religious enough are both penalized.
In many cases, to receive federal funds a social service organization must certify that it provides that service without regard to the religious belief of the recipients. But to qualify for the exemption from the new regulations, a religious employer must "primarily serve persons who share its religious tenets."
The implication is clear. These religious organizations must now choose between their ministry and beliefs. Whatever the reason for designing the exemption so narrowly, the effect reinforces an ominous recent trend: seeking to sequester religious organizations from American public life.
It's easy to see that Catholics care about the false choice these regulations impose — and to see why they do. This week, Catholic commentators have filled the blogosphere exposing this aggressive attack on their deeply held religious beliefs. The Catholic belief in the sanctity of life and the respect for the union that produces life compels its opposition to contraception and sterilization.
At the same time, the Biblical command to serve the poor and needy, including those of other faiths, motivates Catholic organizations' ministering to those most vulnerable in our society. Across the country, Catholic organizations minister in homeless shelters, adoption service centers, women's shelters, pregnancy support service centers, shelters for troubled teens, schools that serve disadvantaged youths, and hospitals that care for Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
Why should non-Catholics care? Why should these regulations bother the conscience of those whose religious beliefs do not disavow contraception or sterilization?
The government should not force out of civil society those religious organizations that meaningfully engage or minister to those of other faiths or no faith. The troubling message conveyed by the government's action here is that the government approves of religious organizations keeping to themselves in their ministry. But once those organizations choose to serve anyone else, the government can dictate which doctrines can be honored in that ministry and which must be abandoned.
All those who are motivated by religious belief to serve their communities have a strong interest in Catholic organizations' ability to minister while remaining true to their doctrines. The community ministries of various churches tend to complement each other's efforts, with each religious organization reaching some people that others miss.
Our constitutional democracy contemplates restraining our government and enabling a robust civil society including religious organizations that provide a social safety net for those of any faith or no faith. These new regulations reverse that structure. They constrain a key contributor to our civil society while enabling the government to force religious organizations into an unnecessary and false choice.
The government should not be telling religious organizations that to be true to themselves, they must keep to themselves.
Hannah C. Smith is a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board and Senior Counsel at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington D.C.-based public interest law firm that defends religious liberty for people of all faiths.