The “religious-liberty claim” of the likes of Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ president, in the debate over the Obama administration’s contraception/sterilization/abortion mandate is “bull****.”
That was the explicit message Barry Lynn, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, delivered at a feminist-majority “Women, Money, Power Forum” in Washington, D.C., March 29.
He joked that the word was one he had just learned from Republican presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who recently used the expletive in a confrontation with a New York Times reporter.
Lynn was the final speaker for a panel titled “Bishops, Politicians and the War on Women’s Health.”
“What have we learned in school today?” he asked the crowd. “We learned that the Protestant religious right and the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church today have no moral authority whatsoever to seize on the rights of women.”
Lynn had been the witness Democratic members of the House Government Oversight Committee originally submitted to appear at the now disingenuously infamous Feb. 16 hearing on religious liberty and the Health and Human Services mandate. He would go on to withdraw his name in protest when Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown Law activist, was denied a last-minute request to appear.
“Any authority it had has been abdicated on the three pillars of bad constitutional law, junk science and a framework of patriarchy that is right out of the 12th century,” he continued.
Waxing theological, Lynn explained that “the central message of the Christian church is the significance of Jesus. It is not now — it never has been — about IUDs [intrauterine devices]; it’s not about Norplant; and it’s not even about abortion.”
“Real religious liberty does have a meaning in this country and should have a meaning throughout the world,” he went on to say. “It should mean that governments should not tell the church what it should believe. It does mean that government can’t play favorites among religions or even between theists and atheists. It means that persons of faith can proselytize, can evangelize, can even condemn those who don’t believe, so long as they do it on their own time.”
It’s an interpretation of religious liberty, he said, “that has got to be stopped, because if that’s the interpretation of religious freedom, then the Church ends up setting up all the rules. Anything that violates some claim, some tenet of some faith, no matter how trivial it may be, becomes a justification for exemption from the laws that apply to the rest of us. Any adverse effect that those exemptions have on anybody else is just tough luck for us, a cost of doing the Church’s business.”
On the HHS mandate, he glossed over the details, announcing in the late-morning session, “I do think it is morally wrong to put people in a coma right before lunch,” but he did manage to make a full-throated defense of the administration’s position: “Here’s the bottom line: The Obama administration, quite correctly, from the very beginning, wanted big religiously affiliated hospitals and universities — not the church on the corner — to cover birth control for their students and their employees who choose to use it.”
“And why not?” Lynn continued. “Of course it should be covered. For these corporations employ hundreds, even thousands, of people who have no connection to the religious orientation of that institution. Second, those corporations get hundreds of millions of tax dollars from state and federal programs. And third, these corporations hold themselves out as performing a service for the public. There’s no St. Joseph’s Hospital somewhere that says, ‘Come to our hospital and learn about Jesus.’ They say, ‘Come to our hospital because we’ll treat and try to cure your cancer.’ And that’s the trifecta of constitutional differences that mean that they should not be exempted from the laws that apply to every other community institution and every other person.”
Lynn predicted that “at the end of all this regulation writing and rewriting,” the regulations will say: “Big religious institutions just have to give employees a piece of paper that tells them how to get free birth-control coverage from some entity unrelated to the religious institutions.”
And the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Lynn predicted, will “again scream from the rooftops: ‘This is an infringement on our civil rights!’ Even a simple administrative act like handing out a form will be treated as if it were complicity in a sin as grave as murder or theft or adultery.”
Further, he expressed outrage that the bishops are making an argument for the religious freedom of not only their own diocesan and other institutions, but others as well: “They’re saying: ‘We demand that every single Catholic or fundamentalist business owner has the right to overrule the conscience of his employees too.’
“You see, you can’t run a comprehensive health-care system in this country — in legalese that is a ‘compelling government interest’ — if every employer can opt out of providing their employees the coverage that they desperately need or want whenever a single tenet of the faith is impinged upon in some tangential way.”
Lynn celebrated the recent Massachusetts court ruling that declared the bishops’ contracting relationship with the Department of Health and Human Services to provide anti-sex-trafficking services unconstitutional.
He recalled testifying before a congressional hearing on the matter of the renewal of the contract alongside then-Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., the chairman of the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, referring to Archbishop-designate Lori, who is headed for Baltimore, as the Church’s “chief lobbyist.”
Anticipating the thrust of an April 2 New York Times editorial, Lynn asserted that the denial of a continuation of the grant was the rightful result of “the Church’s unwillingness to provide comprehensive services to these girls and young women who were being bought and sold.”
Here, again, contraception is at issue, and, Lynn said, administrators of the grant “couldn’t even admit that there is something called abortion if they turned out to be pregnant.” He derided both the beliefs of the Church and their audacity in defending the rights of all Americans to practice what they preach as “some kind of corporate conscience” on behalf of the Church.
Lynn spoke after Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), who expressed outrage that “bishops and Church officials” are ever “held in high esteem and listened to.”
“What gives them that moral authority?” Blaine asked. “How do they have the audacity to speak about women’s sexual health? Let me ask you: Do you know any politicians who are checking with the local gang leaders to establish the policy on the distribution of drugs?”
She added: “Now, you might say, ‘Is it really so bad?’ Yes, it’s so bad.”
It sure is.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online
and a nationally syndicated columnist. She has a new
blog, “K-Lo at Large,” on Catholicism at Patheos.com.