Father Frank Pavone was ordained to the Catholic priesthood in 1988. He is a priest of the Diocese of Amarillo, Texas, and serves full-time in pro-life leadership with his bishop’s permission. He is national director of Priests for Life, which is the Church’s largest ministry focused on ending abortion. He serves as the chairman of and pastoral director of Rachel’s Vineyard, an organization that offers healing from the effects of abortion.
My classmates and I at St. Joseph’s Seminary in the Archdiocese of New York took the same classes – Sacred Scripture, Sacraments, homiletics and many others – and we were ordained together in November 1988 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral by Cardinal John J. O’Connor. We all looked forward to our first parish assignments as brand new priests.
Five years after ordination, Cardinal O’Connor released me from parish ministry to work full-time in pro-life and I became the national director of Priests for Life.
Now nobody would claim that by moving from parish ministry to a more specialized ministry, I became less Catholic or less of a priest.
Yet the Obama administration has introduced a big difference between my classmates who are running parishes, and me, running a religious non-profit ministry.
The difference has to do with the "HHS Mandate," by which the Obama Administration requires us as employers to cover abortion-inducing drugs and contraceptives in the health insurance plans we provide for our employees.
Here's the difference. My classmates don't have to worry about it, because Churches are exempt from the mandate. The government recognizes that it cannot force a believer to violate his or her faith.
But my organization and I are not exempt. We are put in a less protected category. We are offered, in fact, an "accommodation" that still violates our faith. So I face the choice of either violating my faith, or practicing it and being punished by the government.
And therefore we are challenging the HHS mandate now in the U.S. Supreme Court. I am a plaintiff in Priests for Life vs. HHS, one of seven cases that will be reviewed by the Supreme Court on March 23.
In an amicus brief filed in relation to the cases against the mandate, Carrie Severino of the Judicial Crisis Network points out that the distinction the government draws between priests is not where we minister but what tax forms we file.
Here’s a summary of that brief that was reported in the National Review:
“Amici write to highlight the arbitrary nature of the decision by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to base the availability of religious exemptions to the HHS contraceptive mandate (“mandate” or “contraceptive mandate”) not on factors that go to an employer’s religious character, but on its federal tax filing requirements. The HHS mandate relies on categories set forth in Internal Revenue Code § 6033 to distinguish between religious organizations. But the history and application of section 6033 show that the classification was solely intended to facilitate administration of the tax laws, not to draw a line between religious institutions whose free exercise was fully protected and those who received less consideration. In short, the availability of an exemption to the mandate should turn on an organization’s claim to religious exercise rights, not its tax filing obligations.”
Tax law has done enormous harm by silencing priests and pastors who are too worried about losing their tax-exempt status to speak out in defense of the unborn at election time. Now it appears the federal government is at it again, threatening great financial harm to non-profits that won’t bow to the accommodation while allowing churches to enjoy their rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
If the Supreme Court sides with the Obama administration and rules that our faith is defined by our tax forms, every person of faith in the United States has cause for concern.
The government is making at least two big mistakes here. It is posing as judge and arbiter of which beliefs will be protected and which will not. Then, it is likewise posing as judge and arbiter of which believers will be protected and which will not.
The arguments of the government in Priests for Life vs. HHS, and in our sister cases, is that our beliefs don't make sense (to the courts, that is!), and that it is too much trouble for the Administration or the Congress to make the changes in public policy necessary to protect those beliefs.
We fully expect that many of our beliefs will not make sense to the courts. But the essence of religious freedom is that the government protects beliefs not on the basis of whether they make sense, but on the basis of the fact that the believer sincerely holds those beliefs.
And as far as protecting some believers but not others, I'm sure my classmates, serving in parishes fully exempt from the mandate, will agree that if we lose this current case, they are in as much danger as we are, in the face of a government that thinks it can choose which believers can actually practice their beliefs and which ones can't.