By Michael J. Gerson
This month the Obama administration made a decision on health care with far-reaching consequences. It affirmed a regulation requiring Catholic universities, hospitals and charities to purchase health coverage including contraception for their employees. This, of course, would be a violation of Catholic conscience, and Catholic institutions—such as the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and the University of Notre Dame—have strenuously objected.
At first glance, this would seem to be a controversy about contraception. Like many Protestants, I believe that contraception can be used responsibly, to space pregnancies and limit family size. But the Administration is doing more than promoting family planning.
The decision also covers the provision of FDA approved drugs—such as Ella and Plan B, the so-called “morning after pills,” which can end a pregnancy after conception takes place. Many Christian institutions find this disturbing.
And the reasoning behind the Administration’s decision is the most troubling development of all. It claims that religious institutions such as hospitals, charities and colleges should not be considered distinctly religious since they employ and serve people of different faiths. Under this federal rule, only churches themselves would be granted a conscience exemption from regulations imposed by the federal health care law.
This represents a highly privatized view of religious faith. Christians serve non-Christians precisely because they are Christians. A religious institution that serves only its members has little to do with the Gospel, which promises healing and hope to all people.
I am generally not known as a firebrand. I believe our politics is generally too strident. But I am shocked by the frightening implications of this federal decision. The Obama Administration is claiming the right to decide which religious institutions are religious and which are not—and the right to then impose heavy-handed regulations on the hospitals and charities it declares to be secular. This is the most direct assault on religious liberty for decades—perhaps since the 19th century, when nativists passed laws singling out Catholic institutions for discrimination.
Religious liberty has been called the first freedom because freedom of conscience is the basis for every other right. And religious freedom is more than a personal matter. It must include the right of religious institutions to maintain their doctrines, their standards and their autonomy.
In January, the Supreme Court—in a unanimous decision—reaffirmed a broad right of religious autonomy, rooted in the heightened protections of religious liberty found in the Constitution. But the Administration ignored those arguments in the case of the contraception mandate and insisted on a divisive and destructive course.
A broad coalition is emerging to resist this aggression, including politically liberal and conservative Catholics, many Christian colleges and universities, and organizations such as World Vision and Focus on the Family. Members of Congress have introduced legislation to overturn the administration’s decision. But little will happen until Christians understand what is happening. This is one issue that should unite religious people of every background—the protection of religious liberty.
—Michael J. Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).