We still need Fortnight for Freedom

Religious Freedom rally in Concord NH, 2012. Ellen Kolb photo.
Religious Freedom rally in Concord NH, 2012. Ellen Kolb photo.

Fortnight for Freedom: not a one-shot deal

Can Americans acting in accordance with their religious beliefs choose to serve their communities, while having their beliefs respected? The answer ought to be yes. In the past few years, the answer from state and federal governments has been “maybe” or “no.” The first Fortnight for Freedom in 2012 was peaceful pushback.

It was a project started by Catholics, inviting participation from everyone. It started out of dismay at the HHS mandate, now better known as Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate.

That was two years ago. The mandate is still in place. Other threats to religious liberty are interfering with church ministries.  So, once again, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) invites all Americans of good will to join in two weeks of observance, prayer and study between June 21 and Independence Day: Fortnight for Freedom (F4F).

USCCB Fact Sheet: Current Threats to Religious Liberty

What’s on the line? or, Mandate 101

What does the First Amendment’s religious liberty protection mean today? Is “freedom of worship” an adequate substitute for freedom of religion? Who defines what constitutes a religious entity? Those questions aren’t merely academic, and this isn’t just a Catholic issue.

The mandate covers all health insurance policies, which means it affects employer-provided plans. The Affordable Care Act considers the suppression of female fertility to be part of “preventive” care mandated for inclusion in every health insurance plan. That means no co-pay and no direct cost to a woman for her contraceptive of choice. Catholic teaching is that abortion and contraception are immoral. Other faiths, such as the one professed by the owners of Hobby Lobby, have no trouble with most contraception methods but find abortion-inducing methods immoral. If employers with religious objections to contraceptives and abortive agents choose to offer health insurance to employees, may the employers be exempted from the mandate? Yes to churches, say the feds, but only maybe or no to church ministries. How about non-religious businesses owned by people with religious objections to the mandate? That’s what the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga cases are about. Those business owners are waiting to hear if the Supreme Court will let them practice their faith while offering health insurance coverage to their employees.

After the first Fortnight for Freedom, the Obama Administration came out with “accommodations” for religious entities seeking exemption from the mandate. The Department of Health and Human Services helpfully defined what a religious entity was, with then-Secretary Kathleen Sebelius taking to the pages of USA Today to say that the modified rule “respects” religion. That’s why in the rule we put forward, we specifically carved out from the policy religious organizations that primarily employ people of their own faith. This exemption includes churches and other houses of worship, and could also include other church-affiliated organizations.”

That didn’t pass the laugh test. The ministry of Jesus Christ wouldn’t have qualified under that definition. A couple of more “accommodations” followed before the Administration put its foot down, basically saying, you have a year to get used to this. Suck it up. Worship on Sundays, or whatever day you choose, but once you’re outside those church walls your beliefs don’t count.

The result? According to the Becket Fund, a public-interest law firm, 100 court cases involving more than 300 plaintiffs have been filed against the mandate.

“Not my boss’s business”

Calling contraception a “preventive” service on the same level as vaccinations, wellness checks, and (wait for it …) cancer screenings means a huge windfall for peddlers of contraceptives. Making the suppression of female fertility a federal health priority truly re-defines “preventive” care. To try to prevent rollback of the new definition, NARAL Pro-Choice America started a social media campaign this year to mock and marginalize employers who resist the mandate. #notmybossbusiness, said NARAL’s partisans on Twitter. No less an authority than U.S. Senator Al Franken (D-MN) was called upon by NARAL to sum up the issue: “A woman’s boss should never be able to make health care decisions for her, and that includes access to contraception.”

Unpack that one to see the lengths to which some people are willing to go to override conscience rights.

  • Access to contraception: Access? I listened to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi try to excuse the mandate by saying that 98% of Catholic women already use birth control (a two-Pinocchio whopper, according to the Washington Post). If there were any universe in which that were true, how could anybody say access is a problem? For women of limited income, Title X, a longstanding federal program, provides family planning services through numerous agencies (eleven in New Hampshire alone). Ah, but it’s not free to the user. If it’s not free, there’s no access, say the mandate’s defenders. No word on how soon the federal government plans to apply the same definition of “access” to food, clothing, and shelter.
  • “Make health care decisions for her”: An employer-provided insurance policy might not cover a particular procedure. My family has had employer-provided insurance policies that have not included dental coverage (which is certainly preventive). That was unfortunate, but it did not amount to an employer making my health care decisions for me. In fact, simply by offering health insurance at all, whatever the exclusions, the employer was helping me. By the way, It’s a sad fact that the threat of fines under the mandate has prompted some companies to stop offering any kind of health insurance. 
  • A woman’s boss: The boss-vs-women image gets fuzzy when the boss is a woman. Try looking at it this way: a boss’s employee should never be able to force her to act against her religious faith. (Quick, someone! We need a hashtag!) Barbara Green, whose family owns Hobby Lobby, knows a thing or two about that.

The Fortnight is particularly timely this year, with the U.S. Supreme Court due to rule within a few days on Hobby Lobby’s challenge to the mandate. There’s more to religious liberty than the mandate, of course. But there it is in our health insurance, and there it is in court, a nagging reminder that rights of religion and conscience don’t defend themselves.