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HHS MANDATE/ It still undermines religious freedom

RICHARD W. GARNETT answers some objections to the Catholic Church’s position on the HHS mandate proposed by the Obama administration, which is seen as a violation of religious freedom.

Painting depicting Charity Painting depicting Charity

The Obama administration has announced and adopted a rule that will require most religious institutions — including hospitals, schools, colleges, and social-services agencies — to pay for health insurance that covers abortion-causing drugs, sterilization procedures, and contraceptives. This requirement is bad policy, and it imposes a serious and unnecessary burden on these institutions' religious commitments, witness, and mission. And the "compromise" that the president announced last Friday did not and will not cure these defects.

According to the president, the administration plans — at some point, later on — to modify slightly the form, but not the substance, of the mandate. Under the promised new version, it is supposedly the insurance companies, instead of employers with religious objections, that will pay for employees' abortion-causing drugs and contraceptives. But, of course, even the president cannot make these items free. Someone will foot the bill and, in the end, it is not going to be the insurance company.

The announced-but-deferred changes to the mandate do not, unfortunately, represent a true "Road to Damascus" moment for the administration on the importance of religious liberty or the valuable role that distinctively faith-based institutions play in our society. Instead, the administration's promise of future accommodations for some religious objectors is best understood as a crafty — and, it must be said, cynical — election-year political move. The "compromise" is vague, incomplete, and undelivered; even those who welcome it admit that it leaves many important questions unanswered. Still, it turns down the heat on a boiling debate in which even some of the president's more prominent Catholic supporters were questioning both his judgment and his dedication to religious freedom. At the same time, it keeps in place a benefit that many in the president's political base value highly. Telling voters that someone else is going to be made to pay for something they want generally goes over well.

The burdens on religious freedom and diversity imposed by the mandate have been obscured by several widespread mistakes and misconceptions. First, it is said by some that those who resist the mandate — the Catholic bishops make particularly appealing villains in this account — are trying to "impose their morality" on employees, or to "deny access" to items and services to which most people — indeed, many Catholics — have no objection. This charge is false. Religious institutions are not trying to control what their employees buy, use, or do in private; they are trying to avoid being conscripted by the government into paying for what they teach are immoral acts. It is the administration, and not the Catholic Church, that is imposing its values on the vulnerable and unpopular.