October 20, 2017
Inearly October, the U.S. government made two announcements affirming the
importance of religious liberty in our country.
First, the Attorney General issued
a memorandum offering guidance on "Federal Law Protections for Religious
Liberty." The Attorney General's memorandum affirms the importance of
protecting the freedom of faith-based organizations to operate in accordance
with their religious missions.
Second, the Trump Administration
announced a broad religious and moral exemption from the current mandate of the
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) requiring health
insurance coverage for various forms of contraception, sterilization, and
abortion-inducing drugs and devices.
The broadened exemption from the
HHS mandate will protect Catholic and other faith-based institutions—as well as
non-sectarian groups like the March for Life that have moral objections to participating
in abortion—from being forced to cover items in their health plans that go
against their deeply held religious beliefs or moral convictions.
Critics of these announcements
immediately claimed that such exemptions would "roll back progress" and be an
imposition on the wider society. But, in fact, the opposite is true.
If religious freedom is not
protected so that faith-based organizations and individuals can live according
to their religious beliefs, we risk a slippery slope of state-imposed coercion
and a gradual loss of freedom for all. History has shown that suppressing religious
practices of ordinary citizens can lead to other civil liberties being taken
away—such as free speech and freedom of assembly.
As a society, we recognize an
individual person's right to religious freedom; it logically follows that this
same freedom can be exercised peacefully by a group of individuals and the faith-based
institutions and organizations they operate (see Dignitatis Humanae, no. 4). It is a serious violation of freedom for
a government to compel a faith-based organization to adhere to a law or policy
that goes against the very beliefs it was founded upon. Such compulsion
essentially erases that aspect of the institution's religious identity and
suppresses it unjustly.
Allowing faith-based organizations
to operate according to their religious beliefs can hardly be called an
imposition on the rest of society. Individuals are free to choose their place
of employment, taking into consideration whether they are willing to respect its
mission. If they disagree with some aspect of the mission—whether
faith-based or otherwise—they are free to work elsewhere.
By adhering to their founding
beliefs, religious groups aren't "forcing" their views on society; rather, the
true imposition is the stifling and suppression of religious identity and
expression—within these groups' own operations, even—due to mandatory laws. It is therefore
completely valid and fair for a government to grant such religious exemptions.
Real progress is allowing faith-based
organizations to be true to their religious identities and have the freedom to serve
by contributing to the good of society in various ways. The recent policy
developments allow Catholic organizations to continue being faithful to their religious
mission and identity, especially regarding the sanctity of life. While it is
our hope that the sacredness of human life be respected in all areas of society, we are certainly within our rights to live
and operate according to our beliefs within our own Catholic organizations.
Therefore, the Administration's recent announcements pertaining to religious
liberty are proper affirmations of this freedom.
Baker is Programs and Projects Coordinator for the Secretariat of Pro-Life
Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. For more information on the
bishops' pro-life activities, please visit www.usccb.org/prolife.