Chris Codden’s Column from the March 14th Edition of the Visitor

As we begin these 40 days of Lent, we are called to pray, fast and give alms.  Our prayers and fasting are urgently needed for the impending decisions facing the U.S. Supreme Court and their rulings in two very important cases:  Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby and a related case, Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Sebelius.

These two cases challenge the Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate which requires employers to provide employee health insurance that includes contraceptives, including abortion-causing drugs, and female sterilization.  Challenging this mandate are Hobby Lobby, a Christian-owned family business based in Oklahoma, and Conestoga Wood Specialties, a Mennonite owned furniture manufacturer based in East Earl, Pennsylvania.

These cases involve the question of whether a business, as well as its owners, have a right to religious freedom under the First Amendment.  For Conestoga Woods, their suit states that it would be “sinful and immoral” for them to pay for or support certain forms of contraception as required by compliance with the Affordable Care Act.  Hobby Lobby’s suit says, “The Green family’s religious beliefs forbid them from participating in, providing access to, paying for, training others to engage in, or otherwise supporting abortion-causing drugs and devices.”

The question at hand then is whether the religious owners of family businesses, or their closely held, for-profit corporations, are free to exercise their religious rights which are being violated by the application of the contraceptive-coverage mandate of the Affordable Care Act.  These cases will be heard on March 25th, the Feast of the Annunciation.

Another case involves the Little Sisters of the Poor who are seeking to uphold their right to carry out their vows of obedience in their service to the poor where the elderly and dying are cared for with love and dignity until they pass into eternal life. They adhere to the teachings of the Catholic Church and uphold the dignity of each human person, especially those deemed weak and vulnerable.

The suit seeks protection not only for the Little Sisters, but for other Catholic organizations who provide health benefits consistent with their religious faith. This is a different issue since the Obama Administration has offered an exemption for religious nonprofit organizations, but to receive this partial accommodation, they have to sign the two-page form and send it to the “third-party administrator” of their health insurance plans.  This is in essence still providing the coverage through someone else or it is like asking someone else to sin on its behalf or providing services that destroy human life, contradicting their very mission to respect it.  The Little Sisters suit is now waiting for the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals to rule.

What is at stake in all of these cases has little to do with healthcare.  If it was about true “healthcare,” the HSS mandate would have included life-saving drugs such as medications for high blood pressure, diabetes, or chemotherapy.  If it was about “healthcare,” Kathleen Sebelius would have concerned herself with more important aspects of health, instead of mandating pills, products and procedures that actually destroys health and life.

What is at stake is what we mean when we say “freedom of religion.” Over the past years, many have come to equate “freedom of religion” with “freedom of worship,” that people are free to believe (or not believe) whatever they want, as long as it stays in the confines of four walls with a steeple.

The U.S. Bishops address this in their 2012 document, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. “Some question whether it is appropriate for the Church to play a role in political life. However, the obligation to teach about moral values that should shape our lives, including our public lives, is central to the mission given to the Church by Jesus Christ. Moreover, the United States Constitution protects the right of individual believers and religious bodies to participate and speak out without government interference, favoritism, or discrimination. Civil law should fully recognize and protect the Church’s right, obligation, and opportunities to participate in society without being forced to abandon or ignore its central moral convictions. Our nation’s tradition of pluralism is enhanced, not threatened, when religious groups and people of faith bring their convictions and concerns into public life. Indeed, our Church’s teaching is in accord with the foundational values that have shaped our nation’s history: ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’”