Catholic bishops speaking out against the Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate are finding that they are not alone. Other Christian denominations and leaders of other faiths have joined in the cause, often with strong language.
Some Christian denominations see the decision violating their own religious beliefs, especially where abortifacient “contraceptives” are part of the mandated coverage.
But all see a major unifier in the mandate’s violation of the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion and protection of conscience.
At press time, several churches and religious organizations had not responded to phone or email requests: the National Council of Churches, Episcopal Church in America, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Church of God in Christ, Mennonite USA Church, Salvation Army and San Francisco Zen Center. Unable to comment at this time were Rick Warren of Saddleback Church and Franklin Graham of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
“The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion,” noted 65 Orthodox Christian bishops in a statement issued by the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America as they joined with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in protesting the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ requirement that all employers’ health-insurance plans cover contraception and sterilization. Religious organizations would have until August 2013 to find ways to comply with the law.
The members of the assembly called on all Orthodox Christians to immediately voice their concern to elected representatives “in the face of this threat to the sanctity of the Church’s conscience.”
“We … call upon HHS Secretary Sebelius and the Obama administration to rescind this unjust ruling and to respect the religious freedom guaranteed all Americans by the First Amendment,” they stated.
Meanwhile, Michael Milton, chancellor and CEO-elect of Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, N.C., one of America’s largest Protestant seminaries, declared on his blog, “This is not a Catholic issue only. It is not a contraception issue. It is a religious-liberty issue. It is an American issue.”
Milton called Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted “spot-on” when preaching, “We cannot, we will not, comply with this unjust law. Our parents and grandparents did not come to these shores … to have the posterity stripped of their God-given rights.”
“Put this Presbyterian down as saying, ‘Amen’ to that Catholic bishop,” Milton stated.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, called the HHS decision “outrageous.” The Southern Baptist Convention has more than 16 million members in the United States.
“We share the concern of our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters,” he said in an interview. The Southern Baptist Convention is opposed to abortion; its statement on the “Sanctity of Life” reads: “Procreation is a gift from God, a precious trust reserved for marriage. At the moment of conception, a new being enters the universe, a human being, a being created in God’s image. This human being deserves our protection, whatever the circumstances of conception.
“When it comes to abortifacients, and many birth-control methods are abortifacients,” Land said, this mandate is “reprehensible in its demands for people to violate their conscience.”
In regards to Southern Baptist universities and organizations that provide health insurance, Land said, “We are not going to do this. We have a First Amendment right to freedom of conscience, and we’re going to defend it. If we have to defend it by going to jail, so be it.”
Also believing the HHS mandate is a violation of First Amendment rights was the president of the St. Louis-based Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Rev. Matthew Harrison.
“We have a full-tilt assault on religion, especially full creedal Christians, right now,” he said. “This is a fundamental attack on the Roman Catholic Church’s ability to be in the public square, being in partnership with the government providing for the needy.”
He believes the “ultimate goal is to drive religious people out of public life in this nation and out of the reception of any kind of funding or partnership with government for good in society,” he said.
While the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod hasn’t adopted a position as such on contraception, it does strongly object to the use of drugs or procedures that can cause the death of an unborn child. Harrison made this clear in a recent statement. He noted that the church “objects to the use of drugs and procedures that are used to take the lives of unborn children, who are persons in the sight of God from the time of conception.”
Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School is a member congregation of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and when it prevailed recently over the federal government in a religious freedom case, Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, Harrison stated, “The Court, in upholding the right of churches to select their own ministers without government interference, has confirmed a critical religious liberty in our country.”
Future ‘Grandfathering In?’
Another strong reaction comes from John Stonestreet, national programs director of BreakPoint, a part of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. Immediately after co-hosting the daily national radio program The Point with Chuck Colson and their guest, Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh, Stonestreet said: “This is something we at BreakPoint and Chuck Colson care deeply about and are calling our evangelical and Protestant brothers to action.”
Identifying abortion-inducing contraception as violations of their consciences, too, Strongstreet objected to the mandate’s view of pregnancy.
“The language of (HHS Secretary Kathleen) Sebelius’ release treats pregnancy as a disease that needs to be prevented,” he said in an interview. “That’s bad news. Despite different stances we (Catholics and evangelicals and Protestants) have on birth control, that language is unacceptable and opens the door to a whole bunch of evils.”
Simultaneously, Stonestreet noted the need to pay close attention to the language of “preventative care” and what’s going to be grandfathered into that.
As for action, the “Manhattan Declaration”, which was co-authored by Colson, lay the groundwork with more than 500,000 signatures. Those who signed are being given steps to take now in terms of communicating with congressmen, senators and the president.
“We’re being noisy, that’s for sure,” Strongstreet stressed.
The center is using its media outlets, such as broadcasting the interview with Bishop Zubik on more than 300 Christian radio stations. Colson has spoken consistently on this issue on BreakPoint, and Stonestreet has done the same on The Point on 700-plus radio outlets.
Stonestreet envisions one of the possible results of the mandate. “What’s going to be hurt in the long run are the multitude of religious charity groups,” he said. “The government flat out can’t afford or provide for them in the long run. This is going to hurt the poor. But these (religious) groups are cost-effective in treating the poor.”
He remains hopeful “the administration will see how far over the line they’ve stepped,” he said. “The fallout is going to be huge.”
Fallout also comes from the National Association of Evangelicals. In an official statement, the association noted that freedom of conscience is a “sacred gift from God, not a grant from the state.” It also said, “No government has the right to compel its citizens to violate their conscience. The HHS rules trample on our most cherished freedoms and set a dangerous precedent.”
Galen Carey, the National Association of Evangelicals’ vice president for government relations, said, “We are profoundly concerned; first of all, because any time religious freedom is threatened, it should be a concern to all Americans.”
Even if some evangelicals aren’t concerned about the specific issue of contraception, they are deeply concerned about the very narrow definition of religious exemption and specifically that private organizations with their own money are required to do something they believe is wrong.
Carey added, “Many evangelicals do share the concern about the requirement of Plan B and ‘ella’ drugs that do cause abortion.”
Many evangelical colleges like Colorado Christian University will be affected because they offer health plans to students and employees. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty has filed federal lawsuits over the regulations on behalf of Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina and Colorado Christian University.
What does Carey foresee if the mandate stands?
“The only remedy to this regulation is to just drop all health coverage,” he said. “Having to face fines and penalties is something seen in the realm of possibility. We hope the administration rethinks.”
He thinks the administration realizes it made a mistake and hopes it fixes the problem, “and not make just cosmetic and partial changes.” That means protecting all religious organizations, not just churches.
For immediate steps, some of the denominations of the National Association of Evangelicals are considering doing what the Catholics did: reading a letter in all parishes.
Prior to Sebelius’ Jan. 20 announcement that religious organizations would have until August 2013 to find ways to comply with the law, 60 non-Catholic religious leaders and organizations had signed the Stanley Carlson-Thies Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance’s letter to the president in which they stressed that religious organizations and leaders of other faiths are also deeply troubled by and opposed to the mandate and the narrow exemption.
“Most press reports on the controversy concerning the contraceptive mandate portray the opposition as coming only from the Church and Catholic organizations,” the letter read. “But this is wrong. It is emphatically not only Catholics who deeply object to the requirement that health plans they purchase must provide coverage of contraceptives that include some that are abortifacients.”
“Mr. President, religious organizations beyond the Catholic community have deep moral objections to a requirement that their health-insurance plans must cover abortifacients,” the letter continued. “We believe that the federal government is obligated by the First Amendment to accommodate the religious convictions of faith-based organizations of all kinds, Catholic and non-Catholic.”
But not only Christians have expressed outrage at the measure. A post on the website of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the country’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization, criticized the decision by HHS.
Nathan Diament, one of the signers and executive director for the union, issued this statement on the HHS action: “In declining to expand the religious exemption within the health-care reform law, the Obama administration has disappointingly failed to respect the needs of religious organizations such as hospitals, social-welfare organizations and more.
“Most troubling is the administration’s underlying rationale for its decision, which appears to be a view that if a religious entity is not insular, but engaged with broader society, it loses its ‘religious’ character and liberties. … The administration’s ruling makes the price of such an outward approach the violation of an organization’s religious principles. … The Orthodox Union will support legislation in Congress to reverse this policy.”
Even some Christians who disagree with Church teaching disagree with the administration’s move. Alec Hill, president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, which has 866 chapters with more than 36,500 students, said he doesn’t agree with the Church’s teachings on contraception. He nevertheless takes a strong stand against the mandate because the matter touches upon the religious freedom of everyone.
“I’m upset because the mandate compels a religious community to act contrarily to its understanding of Scripture,” Hill wrote on the organization’s website. “In my dark moments, I fear that we are entering an era where the majority will increasingly impose its views upon beliefs it regards as backward.”
Indeed, the Christian fellowship he heads faces religious liberty assaults on 41 campuses.
“The number of campuses which have asked InterVarsity to change our values and leadership standards has increased since the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court verdict in the case of Christian Legal Society v. Martinez,” according to InterVarsity’s website. “Since that decision, InterVarsity’s status as a recognized student organization has been challenged on 41 campuses. InterVarsity is currently tracking a half-dozen campus access challenges, all of which involve university nondiscrimination policies limiting the freedom of InterVarsity chapters to select leaders based on religious criteria.”
“I’m upset because the mandate is an anathema to practicing Catholics worldwide, a direct contradiction of Catholic teaching,” Hill continued. “Many dioceses are moving towards civil disobedience,” he said.
“A common underlying assumption seems to be that religion is tolerable so long as it is segmented, privatized and outside the public realm. As a believer in the lordship of Jesus, I simply cannot accept this point of view.”
Call for Solidarity
Hill sees hope in the recent Hosanna-Tabor ruling and is calling for InterVarsity members to “stand in solidarity with our Catholic friends on the health-care mandate,” urging them to contact their elected representatives and ask their pastors to speak out. “Simply put, our duty is to be faithful followers of Jesus. By doing so, his glory, power and redemption will impact culture in ways we cannot foresee.”
The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s Harrison believes with this “secular assault on those of us who hold traditional Christian values … we have a responsibility to stand up and confess in the face of this opposition. It never has been more the time to stand up than now.
“In Puritan America they set aside Rhode Island for those who would not submit to the regulations of the state church,” he said. “We don’t have a Rhode Island to go to anymore. If we did, it wouldn’t be able to hold all the people. It’s time to stand up and go to Washington and say, We’re not going to tolerate this.”
Citing the assistance and care churches and religious institutions have given and do give to millions of needy across the spectrum, he noted that now “we are being regarded as bigots because of our of religion. We’re going to witness what it is to be a Christian in the face of all opposition and insist on our rights.”
“I want to thank the Catholic Church and the USCCB for taking a stand,” he added. “We’re small — 2.4 million — and would be in a very bad way without the Catholics standing up. We’re going to stand with the Catholic Church on this issue of religious freedom.”
The Reformed Theological Seminary’s Milton didn’t mince words either. On his blog he said: “Now, unless there is a wholesale repeal of this act or unless there is dramatic and immediate steps taken to curb the government’s prying into the consciences of religious institutions like our seminary, or other similar religious establishments that appeal to a higher law than man’s, we will have a constitutional crisis on our hands. I realize that those are heavy words. But we must all realize that this is a weighty matter.
“But liberty and freedom, as our founders declared, come from Almighty God,” he continued. “To meddle with those rights of conscience is to return to the crisis that gave rise to this nation. Unless these violations of religious rights are expelled, now, they will bring ruin to this nation.
“It is time for Americans to speak up for religious freedom while there is still time. Thank God for the Catholic bishops and priests who did,” he concluded. “We all must.”
Joseph Pronechen is the Register’s staff writer.