Defending the Rights of Religious Expression for Everyone — From Anglicans to Zoroastrians
The Becket Fund’s new president, William Mumma, discusses key threats to religious liberty.
BY THOMAS L. McDONALD
| Posted 12/16/11 at 6:35 AM
They boast of working to protect the free expression of all faiths, “from Anglicans to Zoroastrians.”
Established in 1994, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is a nonprofit, public-interest legal and educational institute whose lawyers have defended dozens of cases in which the government has infringed upon the religious rights of Americans.
Recently, the Becket Fund took up the case of Belmont Abbey v. Sebelius, in which Belmont Abbey College is challenging the interim final rule of the Health and Human Services Department requiring all insurers to cover contraceptives and sterilizations.
Earlier this year, William Mumma took over as president of the fund when founder Kevin “Seamus” Hasson stepped down for health reasons. Mumma is president and CEO of Mitsubishi UFJ Securities USA, as well as chairman of the board of trustees for Georgetown University’s Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy.
Mumma recently spoke about the rapid increase in attacks by the government on religious liberty at the local, state and federal level.
The Department of Health and Human Services [HHS] recently mandated coverage of medical services forbidden by the Church. How are the new regulations different from the old, and upon what legal grounds can the Becket Fund oppose them?
The new regulations are totally unprecedented, in that they will eventually require almost every employer in the country to provide contraceptives and some abortion-inducing drugs to their employees for free. The Obama administration included a very narrow religious exemption, but it wouldn’t cover most religious organizations. Nor would it cover any religious individuals who are prohibited by their religion from buying these drugs for their employees.
The Becket Fund opposes these regulations as a direct and totally unnecessary attack on religious freedom. If the government thinks everyone needs these drugs, it should give them out directly or work with willing distributors. But the Constitution and federal law prohibit the government from forcing unwilling individuals to violate their religion. Worse, there is absolutely no need for the regulations — contraceptives aren’t exactly hard to come by in our society, and 90% of insurance plans were covering them before Obamacare.
HHS recently defunded the USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services trafficking victim assistance program, on the grounds that it would not provide as essential service — the “full range of reproductive services.” Is this just the beginning of a new assault on Catholic social agencies, and how can the Church defend her role in providing these services?
I think it is the continuation of a problem that has been going on for a while now. The Catholic Church is the largest non-government provider of social services in the country and probably the world. But, of course, there are some kinds of help the Catholic Church can’t provide, like referring for abortion or placing a child for adoption in a same-sex family.
That shouldn’t really be a problem — there is no reason the government couldn’t let the Church provide the kinds of help it can provide (which is really almost everything), and then work with others for the handful of things the government wants to do that the Church cannot. But, instead, governments have recently been using the Church’s opposition to some services to ban them from providing any. That doesn’t help anyone.
What can the Church do to defend her role? I think it needs to publicize and talk about the issue plenty, and make clear that the administration will face litigation when it discriminates against Catholics or any other religious group.
What are the current threats to religious liberty from the movement towards same-sex ‘marriage,’ and how can we defend ourselves against them?
The religious-liberty concern is that if same-sex “marriages” are permitted the government will make it illegal for religious people and institutions to say they don’t want to participate in the marriage. In a diverse society, obviously, different people will have different religious and moral beliefs about things. It is one thing for the government to say the government will recognize same-sex unions. But it is quite another to say it will force unwilling people to be part of them even if it violates their religion.
Protecting against this threat requires several things. First, we need to make clear that people who hold traditional views of marriage are not ignorant, mean bigots, but people of good will who are relying on thousands of years of human history and religious tradition. Second, we need to be active in state legislatures so that where same-sex “marriages” are permitted by statutes the statutes themselves provide broad and express protections for religious liberty. And third, where necessary, we need to be prepared to zealously defend religious liberty in court.
The Justice Department is also attacking the “ministerial exception,” which allows churches to make employee decisions without undue interference from the state. Testimony in the Hosanna-Tabor case, [in which the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission challenged the rights of a Lutheran school to fire an employee on religious grounds,] raised the chilling prospect that the government could potentially decide that the Church’s male-only priesthood is, in fact, a matter of discrimination. Does the Obama administration have any grounds for this novel assertion of power, and how can we defend against it?
At the oral argument in this case it was no surprise to hear Justice [Antonin] Scalia express shock at the aggressively anti-religious position taken by the government. But it was a bit surprising, and very heartening, to hear Justice [Elena] Kagan also chide the government for taking what she called “amazing” positions against religious liberty.
Under the law, as the Constitution is written and has been understood for more than two centuries, the government has absolutely no basis for this position. I think the question of the all-male priesthood is an important reminder of why we need the religion clauses in the Constitution — if religion doesn’t get special protection, then the government can just decide that its interest in eliminating sex discrimination is more important than the Church’s interest in following centuries of Church doctrine.
Are there sufficient current protections for health-care workers to refuse to collaborate in medical services they find morally unacceptable, or are these protections being eroded?
We have some very strong conscience protections that, when properly enforced and respected, go a long way toward protecting religious objectors. However, it is important to note that protecting conscience in the health-care field is in everyone’s interests. If we start saying that you can only operate a hospital or be a practicing ob-gyn if you will perform abortions, the result will be fewer hospitals and doctors.
What are the issues in the Belmont Abbey case, and what is at stake should they lose?
Belmont Abbey is a small, Catholic liberal arts college located in Belmont, N.C. Founded in 1876 by Benedictine monks, Belmont Abbey’s mission is to “educate students in the liberal arts and sciences so that in all things God may be glorified.” True to its roots, Benedictine monks continue to financially sponsor and govern the college. As a Catholic institution, the college is subject to the Church’s provisions which govern its colleges and universities, one of which proclaims that an essential characteristic of a Catholic college is fidelity to the Christian message as it comes through the Church.
One of those messages is the Church’s teaching that sterilization, contraception and abortion are against God’s law. So when the government recently mandated that all private group health plans cover sterilization and contraception (including abortifacients), Belmont Abbey knew that it could not follow both the government’s mandate and its Church’s teachings. Faced with this dilemma, the college decided to ask the court to remove this substantial burden to its religious freedom. What is at issue in this case, then, is the protection of Belmont Abbey’s right of conscience.
There is much at stake in this case. Particularly in the medical and insurance fields, people will be forced to choose between violating their religious convictions and violating the law. That is a terrible position for the government to put someone in. Imagine you are a 50-year-old pharmacist and your governor says that you have to violate your religious convictions and sell ella [an “emergency contraception” which some people say can act as an abortifacient] or lose your license and the only profession you’ve ever known? Or imagine you are a nurse and the hospital says you must assist in late-term abortions or lose your job?
Particularly in a bad economy, these predicaments impose powerful government coercion on people to give up their religious convictions as the price of keeping their jobs or participating equally in society. Fortunately, the Constitution and state and federal laws make it illegal to put people in these positions.
Also, it is important to note that the monks didn’t ask for this lawsuit — the administration gave them no choice. They either have to violate their religious convictions by providing these drugs or they have to kick their students and employees off of health insurance and pay steep fines. So HHS brought the war to the monks, not the other way around.
Why is the phrase “under God” so important that the Becket Fund would take a case to the Supreme Court in order to protect it?
Our Declaration of Independence sets forth the American view that we are inherently free, that we have inherent rights simply by virtue of being members of the human species, and that those rights are not given to us by government, but come from God. Our Pledge of Allegiance honors that history and reminds schoolchildren every day of the original understanding of our rights. It is also an important reminder to government that government cannot simply take our rights away.
The push by radical anti-religionists to expunge every mention of God from our nation does all of us a deep disservice. A belief in God rather than government as the source of our liberties is a founding principle of this nation that should never be de-emphasized.
Register correspondent Thomas L. McDonald writes from Medford, New Jersey.
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