Friday, March 16, 2012

The Bishops Assume the Position

The best thing that can be said about "United for Religious Freedom," the new statement from the USCCB's Administrative Committee, is that it's not hysterical. It is, however, uncompromising and disingenuous. Let us count the ways.

1. "This is not about access to contraception, which is ubiquitous and inexpensive, even when it is not provided by the Church’s hand and with the Church’s funds." On the contrary, for those of modest means, the cost of contraception is not inconsequential; denying them coverage can indeed deny them access.

2. "This is not about the Bishops’ somehow “banning contraception,” when the U.S. Supreme Court took that issue off the table two generations ago." Did the U.S. Supreme Court take the issue of abortion off the table as well, so far as the bishops are concerned? I don't think so.

3. "The mandate includes an extremely narrow definition of what HHS deems a “religious employer” deserving exemption—employers who, among other things, must hire and serve primarily those of their own faith." No mention here of the president's accommodataion, which would excempt a much wider range of faith-based institutions from the mandate by shifting the burden of coverage to their insurance companies.

4. "The introduction of this unprecedented defining of faith communities and their ministries has precipitated this struggle for religious freedom. Government has no place defining religion and religious ministry." Distinctions about what does and does not constitute a religious institution is a long-standing feature of federal anti-discrimination law. For example, a school must meet certain criteria in terms of religious purpose in order to be able to discriminate in hiring on religious grounds. 

5. "HHS thus creates and enforces a new distinction—alien both to our Catholic tradition and to federal law—between our houses of worship and our great ministries of service to our neighbors, namely, the poor, the homeless, the sick, the students in our schools and universities, and others in need, of any faith community or none." What do you mean by "our," bishops? Most of those great ministries are 501 (c) 3 non-profits with their own boards of trustees, unconnected legally to the any part of the Catholic Church and not subject the episcopal rule. That's not to say that many of them are not strongly identified with Catholicism, or that they don't advertise their connection to the faith. But just as the head of the Catholic Hospital Association has embraced the president's accommodation, so many of the "great ministries" may choose to depart from the bishops' campaign against the mandate.

6. "The HHS mandate creates still a third class, those with no conscience protection at all: individuals who, in their daily lives, strive constantly to act in accordance with their faith and moral values." So the bishops are hewing to a right of individual employers to exemptions from health care coverage according to their personal religious lights. If I don't believe in blood transfusions, blood transfusions are out? If I believe God condemns race-mixing, coverage of a spouse of a different race is out? To what degree do the bishops wish to permit conscience to trump laws? What of those fundamentalist Mormons who who are conscientiously obliged to practice plural marriage?

7."United for Religious Freedom." Regardless of how the question is asked, Americans believe that this struggle is not about religious freedom but about contraception. And they're right. If the bishops had gotten the exemption they wanted in the first place, they would not be fighting this fight.

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