by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
I encourage you to go to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops website (usccb.org) to view a 3.5 minute video entitled, “Speak up for rights of conscience.” The video features three testimonies.
The first is given by a nurse, Catherine Cenzon- DiCarlo, who was forced
by her hospital employer to participate in a late-term abortion. The second is by Sister Jane Marie Klein, who is the CEO for the Franciscan Alliance Hospital System that is suing the federal government to forestall their hospitals being shut down for refusing to provide abortifacient drugs, sterilizations and contraceptives in their health plans. The third testimony is by Christine Ketterhagen, whose family owns and operates Hercules Industries. Hercules Industries would have to pay $162,500 weekly in fines for refusing to comply with the HHS mandates that are part of the implementation for the Affordable Care Act.
The attempted rollout for the Affordable Care Act has been disastrous. The media has given much attention to the debacle of HealthCare.gov, revealing the government’s inability after three years and hundreds of millions of dollars to create even a workable website. The press has also focused on the cancellation of health insurance for over five million Americans, contradicting the president’s repeated promise that if you liked your health plan and doctor, you would be able to keep them.
However, the media has given scant attention to the threat to religious freedom and conscience rights resulting from the Health and Human Services (HHS) mandates which are part of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. At the conclusion of the recent meeting of the Catholic bishops of the United States, we issued a unanimous statement reaffirming our resistance to the HHS mandates.
The mandates require all health plans offered by for-profit employers to include abortifacient drugs, sterilizations, and contraceptives. This is a violation of the conscience rights of Catholic employers and others, who believe any or all of these so-called services to be morally objectionable.
Moreover, the mandates provide a narrow religious exemption that excludes many church ministries — e.g., Catholic Charities, Catholic hospitals, Catholic universities, etc. This creates a twofold problem. First, the government is claiming the authority to define what makes a ministry truly religious or, in our case, authentically Catholic. Secondly, it requires religious ministries that the government deems not sufficiently religious to offer so-called services that are in direct violation of their church’s moral teaching.
The bishops expressed our regret that we have been forced to spend much of
our energy and time the last several years resisting these very real threats to religious liberty and conscience rights, instead of being able to work with the current administration for our common desire to expand access to health care. This is a battle that we did not choose, but one that we must fight.
Thus far, the Senate has blocked every effort to provide a legislative remedy to the HHS mandates. Even if we could miraculously motivate both the Senate and the House to pass corrective legislation, it seems certain that we would face a presidential veto.
This means our only hope is the court. Thus far, there have been 38 decisions by district or appellate courts regarding private businesses objecting to the violation of their conscience rights by the mandates.
Of those 38 cases, 32 decisions ruled against the government mandates and in favor of the conscience rights of private employers. The Supreme Court, after reviewing appellate court decisions, announced just this week that it has agreed to hear a case on the conscience rights issue. The case includes Hobby Lobby, a nationwide chain of arts and crafts stores owned by David Green and his family, with oral arguments to be made in March of next year, with a ruling probably by late June 2014.
The requirement for religious ministries to comply with the mandates does not take effect until this January. As a result, the courts have been more reluctant to hear those cases, in part hoping the administration would offer an acceptable accommodation.
However, on Nov. 21 a federal district court in Pennsylvania handed down a decision ruling that the HHS mandates place a substantial burden on ministries to exercise their religion. The court judged that the ministries were likely to prevail in their case against the government and issued a preliminary injunction preventing the government from enforcing the HHS mandates.
This decision only impacts the dioceses of Pittsburgh and Erie. Nevertheless, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, the president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, said: “I’m strongly encouraged by the court’s rejection of the government’s attempt to reduce freedom of religion to freedom of worship, as well as the court’s recognition that service to those in need is at the heart of our faith.”
Despite these encouraging judicial results, the final outcome remains uncertain. If our efforts in the court fail, Catholic ministries and individual employers will be faced with the dilemma either to comply with the mandates in violation of their conscience or to engage in civil disobedience.
The Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas is one of a few diocesan health plans that for the time being enjoy “grandfathered status.” This means for this year and perhaps for another year or so, those in our health plan will not be affected by the mandates. However, in the not too distant future, the government regulations will force the archdiocese to lose this status and we will face the same dilemma.
At the beginning of Advent last year, the American bishops issued a call to prayer for life, marriage and religious liberty. Catholics were asked through prayer, sacrifice and penance both to intercede for the renewal of our nation and to in- crease their own spiritual stamina and fortitude so that they could be more effective and joyful witnesses for a culture that values and protects life, marriage and religious liberty.
Suggestions for responding to this call to prayer included monthly eucharistic Holy Hours, daily rosaries by families or individuals, and abstaining from meat as well as fasting on Fridays. This past year, my own personal commitment was to fast from desserts and other sweets, which was a major lifestyle change for me. I am glad this year is over!
For the coming year, my commitment is to make at least one additional Holy Hour each week. I normally make a Holy Hour each morning to begin the day. This year, I will make an additional Holy Hour at night once a week, specifically praying for life, marriage and religious liberty.
I ask each of you to make some commitment to prayer, penance and sacrifice for life, marriage, and religious liberty. Please pray and fast especially for a wise
and just decision by the Supreme Court. There is so much at stake.