Freedom Is Worth Defending

It’s the evening of Memorial Day as I write this column. Never can we forget those patriots who gave their all in service to our beloved country.

Earlier, I took a stroll outside around St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and chatted with some of our men in uniform, sailors in for Fleet Week. As I try to do when I meet our men and women in the Armed Forces, I thanked them for their service to our nation. That seems especially appropriate on Memorial Day.

“You’re welcome,” one of the men replied. “But, freedom is worth defending.”


Maybe some folks are a little tired of hearing or talking about it, but our priests who are there “on the ground” tell me I should not flag in presenting and explaining the Church’s high profile posture in our defense of religious freedom.

We’ve prayed about it—and will intensify our prayers during the upcoming Fortnight for Freedom—written about it, spoken of it, given endless interviews on it, and brought our case to the White House, Congress and, now, to the courts.

It’s not a struggle we asked for. I wish it would end. And it could so very easily.

All the government has to do is acknowledge that it has no business defining what a Church considers to be its essential ministry. That means creating an exemption based on federal laws dating back at least 40 years. These broader exemptions keep the government from deciding who is “religious enough” to enjoy religious freedom protection, instead covering all stakeholders who object in conscience.

The President himself has recognized that a church can and should receive an exemption from a mandate of the government that a church considers contrary to its conscience. But it is not only churches that enjoy religious freedom—religious schools, charities, hospitals, and other ministries do as well. If he would include those as well, there’d be no religious freedom controversy. He’d have his program, and religion would have its freedom.

Trouble is, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has refused to do this. It has adopted as its own a definition of “religious employer” that was drafted by the ACLU in California, and has never been adopted at the federal level. Under that definition, the federal government has presumed to define just what “hoops” a community of faith must “jump through” to “earn” the right to an exemption!

You know what those hoops are? Well, to be exempt, you have to serve primarily people of your own faith; employ primarily people of your own faith; and have as your purpose the inculcation of religious beliefs (rather than, say, service, charity, education, or healing)!

So, to “earn” the exemption, our soup kitchens will presumably have to ask those in line for their baptismal certificates, and if there are too many, to turn away non-Catholics!

Our inner-city schools, which so often serve more non-Catholics than Catholics, I guess will have to start expelling or turning down kids who are not Catholic!

Our homeless shelters will have to give catechism lessons in the Catholic faith to those who show up for a shower, fresh clothes, a hot meal, and a cot for the night!

You see why we’re worried?

The HHS definition apparently only accepts the right of worship, but not the freedom to serve those in need and bring religious values to society that flows from such worship. As Father Larry Snyder, the director of Catholic Charities USA, remarked, even Jesus feeding the 5,000 would not qualify for an exemption according to the HHS!

All Washington has to do is say, “Any entity that finds these mandates morally objectionable is not coerced to do them,” and leave it there. Don’t get into the red tape in trying to mandate for us how our good works should be defined.

How simple! How constitutional! How American!

The government gets the mandate it wants, even though we still disagree whether the mandate actually promotes health and prevents disease. But the difference is, those with moral and religious objections are not forced to participate.

And this is all the difference in the world, since those who can’t do it for reasons of conscience are at peace, as they would not have to violate their deepest convictions.

That’s all it’s really about: religious freedom.

It’s not about access to contraception, as much as our local newspaper—surprise!—insists it is. The Church is hardly trying to impose its views on society, but rather resisting the government’s attempt to force its view on us.

Vast and unfettered access to chemical contraceptives and abortifacients—all easier to get, they tell me, than beer and cigarettes—will continue. If you think it’s still not enough, then subsidize them if you insist. Just don’t make us provide them and pay for them!

It’s hardly a “Republican” or “Democrat” issue, or “conservative–liberal” one. The dignity of immigrants, service to refugees and victims of human trafficking, the definition of a Catholic college (just ask my friends at the Christian Brothers’ Manhattan College about their protest of the government’s verdict that they no longer meet the government’s definition of what a “Catholic college” really is!), or, coerced provision and subsidizing of abortifacients. None of those are partisan or ideological issues.

It’s not even a Catholic issue. The Lutherans who argued—and won—that the government had no business deciding that their teachers in a Lutheran school did not qualify as “ministers” of their faith will tell you that.

It’s sure not an obsession of the bishops, as is clear from the wide variety of grassroots charities, health care services, and schools who brought suit against HHS last week.

It’s not “anti-President Obama,” as he himself laudably recognizes that people of faith have a right to an exemption, and has promised that he would respect the freedom of religion and the rights of conscience.

Nope—it’s about freedom of religion. Our opponents are much slicker in the PR battle, knowing that, if they can reduce this to a “woman’s health” issue, they’ve got a chance, but that they have none at all when they debate what it really is—the Constitution and the premier freedom, that of religion.

As that sailor on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral reminded me on Memorial Day, “Freedom is worth defending.”