WASHINGTON — Some issues fade; others fester. The Obama administration's contraceptive mandate on religious charities, hospitals and universities is the festering kind.
The initial reaction concerned the rights of institutions. Catholic organizations naturally resent being forced to buy health insurance that covers sterilization, contraceptives and drugs that can end a pregnancy soon after conception. The Obama administration seems to have calculated that since contraceptives are popular and the Catholic Church is not, the outcry would be isolated.
But religious liberty is also popular, given the Constitution and all that. Even those who have no objection to contraception — the category in which I have repeatedly placed myself — can be offended when arrogant government officials compel religious institutions to violate the dictates of their conscience. Religious liberty that applies only to doctrines and practices of which we approve means nothing.
In this case, however, the main harm Barack Obama has done is not to institutions. It is to the people they serve.
The provision of social services in America, and by America abroad, is a partnership between government and religious groups, both of which have advantages. Religious charities are compassionate and trusted by communities. Government has greater reach and resources.
A humane partnership between the two has depended on an uneasy compromise. Religious groups must use public funds for public purposes, not for proselytization. Government, in turn, allows religious charities to maintain views and practices that are different from those of public institutions.
At first, Obama endorsed this consensus — in his "Call to Renewal" speech in 2006 and his Zanesville, Ohio, speech in 2008. Now his administration is applying an ideological wrecking ball. It asserts that only churches merit serious religious liberty protection. The government's views and standards must prevail when religious groups serve nonmembers — an apparently unlimited power to regulate religious institutions that don't distribute the bread and wine.
The health care mandate is not an aberration; it is a culmination. In the Hosanna-Tabor Supreme Court case, the Obama administration opposed any special ministerial exception to federal law — a radical argument unanimously repudiated by the court. The Department of Health and Human Services recently denied a grant to the Migrant and Refugee Services committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to assist women rescued from sex trafficking, ostensibly because the organization does not refer for abortions.
In a variety of international settings, I have seen religious groups, with support from the U.S. government, engaged in AIDS treatment, fistula repair, malaria control and the promotion of child and maternal health. Dr. Ram Cnaan of the University of Pennsylvania has documented the domestic role of "sacred places that serve civic purposes" — homeless shelters, food banks, health care, welfare-to-work, prisoner re-entry programs. Cnaan estimates the "replacement value" — the cost to government agencies of assuming these roles — to be about $140,000 each year for the typical community-serving religious institution.
Take the case of one city: Philadelphia. There are about 2,000 such faith-based institutions, many of them Catholic. Replacing them would require about a quarter of a billion dollars every year. Catholic Social Services helps more than 250,000 people a year in soup kitchens, shelters and centers for the disabled. Its Community-Based Services division runs adoption and foster-care programs, staffs senior community centers and supports immigration services. The Catholic Nutritional Development Services, working in partnership with public agencies, delivers nearly 10 million meals a year — accounting for about half of all meals delivered to poor children in Philadelphia in the summer months when school is out.
Much of this good work — and similar work across the country — is now threatened. If federal policies make it impossible for religious nonprofits and hospitals to work in conjunction with federal, state and local agencies in providing social services, millions of poor and vulnerable Americans — Catholic and non-Catholic, religious and nonreligious — would suffer. The task of building alternatives would cost hundreds of billions of dollars — and then lack the distinctive human touch provided by religious groups.
All because Obama seems determined to establish secularism as a state religion. There is, however, an easy solution to the problem: The president could respect the rights and views of those who disagree with him. The relevant portion of the Bill of Rights is easy to find, because it comes first.
Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson(at)washpost.com.