By Benjamin Mann
.- President Obama's contraception mandate may only be the beginning of a historic attack on religious freedom, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan warned his fellow U.S. bishops in a Feb. 22 letter.
“If the government can, for example, tell Catholics that they cannot be in the insurance business today without violating their religious convictions, where does it end?” asked the cardinal, addressing the U.S. episcopate in a letter coauthored with the bishops' religious freedom chair Bishop William E. Lori.
The Health and Human Services’ contraception mandate “violates the constitutional limits on our government, and the basic rights upon which our country was founded,” wrote the cardinal and bishop. They noted that religious liberty “does not depend on the benevolence of who is regulating us.”
The dispute with the administration is “not about Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals,” and “not just about contraception, abortion-causing drugs, and sterilization – although all should recognize the injustices involved in making them part of a universal mandated health care program.”
“It is about people of faith. This is first and foremost a matter of religious liberty for all.”
In a letter released in both English and Spanish, Cardinal Dolan and Bishop Lori gave their fellow bishops an update on the Health and Human Services mandate, finalized Feb. 10 over the objections of the Catholic Church and other religious groups.
The mandate requires many religious ministries to cover contraception and sterilization, including abortion-causing drugs, in their health plans. The U.S. bishops have rejected the rule, along with a promised change purportedly shifting the burden to insurers.
In their letter, Cardinal Dolan and Bishop Lori confirmed that Health and Human Services' original rule – forcing religious groups to underwrite the “preventive services” directly, rather than contracting to provide them through premium payments to insurers – had become law without change.
“The mandate to provide the illicit services remains,” they wrote. “The exceedingly narrow exemption for churches remains. Despite the outcry, all the threats to religious liberty posed by the initial rules remain.”
Those initial rules drew public condemnation from over 180 Roman Catholic and Eastern Catholic bishops in the U.S., as well as 53 of the country's Eastern Orthodox bishops and thousands of other religious leaders.
Cardinal Dolan and Bishop Lori thanked the U.S. Catholic bishops for their “remarkable witness of our unity in faith and strength of conviction during this past month.”
“We came together, joined by people of every creed and political persuasion, to make one thing resoundingly clear: we stand united against any attempt to deny or weaken the right to religious liberty upon which our country was founded.”
“We have made our voices heard, and we will not cease from doing so until religious freedom is restored.”
They insisted that President Obama “should rescind the mandate.”
But the bishops' fight for their constitutional “free exercise of religion,” guaranteed in the First Amendment, may have just begun.
“Recent actions by the administration have attempted to reduce this free exercise to a 'privilege' arbitrarily granted by the government as a mere exemption from an all-encompassing, extreme form of secularism,” Cardinal Dolan and Bishop Lori observed.
Even the contraception mandate's “unduly narrow” religious exemption – which allows institutions to opt out if they primarily employ and serve adherents of their own faith, for the purpose of inculcating religious values – “is instituted only by executive whim” and “can be taken away easily.”
The bishops' president and religious freedom chairman reaffirmed their support for the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act. The bill which would amend the federal health care reform law under which the contraception rule was made, to strengthen its conscience protections.
They urged other bishops to share the English and Spanish versions of the letter with the faithful of their dioceses, and to contact legislators through the action alert at www.usccb.org/conscience.
“Above all,” the cardinal and chairman reflected, “we rely on the help of the Lord in this important struggle … Let us continue to pray for a quick and complete resolution to this and all threats to religious liberty and the exercise of our faith in our great country.”