Sunday, September 16, 2012

Our faith, our liberty

This is Mr. Weber's talk to the students about JPII's decision to join the lawsuit with the Diocese of Nashville against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

On Wednesday of last week, Pope John Paul II High School joined with the Diocese of Nashville and six other diocesan entities in a federal lawsuit to block implementation of certain aspects of the Affordable Health Care Act that force us to pay for morally objectionable services as part of our health insurance plan.  We are one of the now 50+ organizations around the country who have filed a similar lawsuit.

It’s pretty unusual to levy a suit against one’s own government, and I think it’s important for all of us to fully understand why the Board of Trustees of JPII thought this necessary.

In the spring of 2012, the Department of Health and Human Services instituted a rule that requires almost all private health plans nationwide to provide contraception and sterilization coverage as part of their benefits to employees, including some types of contraception that are more accurately labeled “abortifacients” because they cause a “miscarriage” of the fertilized egg rather than prevent fertilization to begin with. 

The rule makes an exception for “religious employers”, but then defines that very narrowly, as institutions that “primarily employ” and “primarily serve” those who “share their religious tenets.” Under this definition, if groups feed the poor or serve the sick or educate students from other faiths, the exception doesn’t apply and those organizations must comply with the rule.

Obviously, the gospel doesn’t make that kind of distinction, nor do the many religious charities that serve the needs of others. Emergency rooms in Catholic hospitals don’t turn away gunshot victims if they’re not Catholic, Baptist soup kitchens don’t deny food to non-Baptists, nor do international charities require proof of a particular faith before feeding starving people in third world countries.  Jesus didn’t just say “love God with our whole hearts and minds,” but also “love your neighbor as yourself.” Our churches are not merely houses of worship, but are also places that serve those in need, wherever that need exists, and whoever has that need. The mission of our Churches is outward, not inward. 

It’s pretty clear that JPII won’t qualify for the exception, either.  Forty-five percent of you aren’t Catholic, and we’re proud of our association with you and your families.  Not all of our teachers are Catholic, but they serve our school’s mission in a remarkable, powerful way. All of us are leaving school on Wednesday to serve the needs of the community as part of our Day of Service, and the faith of the people we serve doesn’t matter, nor should it. Our Christian Service Internships are with organizations that serve mostly non-Catholic populations.

The Catholic Church has long held that contraception is against the natural law because it intentionally blocks the natural end of sex, which is procreation. Sterilization does the same thing, permanently.  Abortion, of course, is a grave violation of the dignity of human life. So the specific issue is whether JPII or any other organization that opposes contraception or sterilization should be forced to pay for those things or provide them to its employees. We don’t think so.

But there’s a broader question, and I would argue this question is even more significant.  There are many people of good will, both within the Catholic Church specifically and within the Christian faith more generally, who disagree with the Church’s teaching on contraception. That disagreement is like a squabble among family members—an argument between a father and son. Christians may disagree with each other from time to time on matters of faith and morals, but it is not the right or role of government to decide. When the government presumes that right and compels the church to behave a certain way, the issue is no longer about contraception; it’s about the first amendment and the free exercise of religion. 

In the words of Helen Alvare, a professor of law at George Mason University:

“The First Amendment protects the free exercise of religion, which includes religious institutions being allowed to operate with complete integrity. That integrity includes the right to offer health benefits consistent with their origins, their mission statements and the teaching of their Church.”

"So it's not really about the 'Pill.' It’s about the 'Bill' (of Rights)", says Peter Feuerherd. It’s about religious liberty. And that’s why this issue is much bigger than JPII, or this diocese, or even the Catholic Church. That’s why many religious organizations that don’t even share Catholic views on contraception have testified before Congress against this rule, including the National Association of Evangelicals, the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, Evangelicals for Social Action, and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. That’s why civil libertarians, some of whom avow no religious affiliation at all, support the Catholic Church in its fight against this ruling.

Religious freedom is cherished principle in this country, a founding principle.  Because our government has always respected this principle, our churches have thrived here and have become powerful forces for good. We’ve built hospitals. We’ve educated generations through our schools, including millions of the inner-city poor. We’ve fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and ministered to the sick and dying.

By denying churches their religious freedom precisely because their religiously motivated purpose compels them to serve the common good of society, our government punishes what it should encourage. We think that's bad public policy. 

We also believe the government's underlying message to people of faith--that  faith should be understood as a private matter, something we should do within our churches, without an outward mission to others, OR ELSE be subject to this law --is simply wrong.  It's not who we are. It's not what Jesus commanded us to be. 

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