No Rest from "Mischief"

by Theresa Notare

July 21, 2000

On my way home one Saturday evening after an energetic day of taking care of my friend's three small children--hiking, diaper changes, story telling, movies, more diaper changes and burgers--I stopped at a local parish for the vigil Mass. I had always wanted to stop in this Church because it seemed so serene from the outside. As I walked into this refuge of peace and Presence, I was looking forward to taking a spiritual "rest." Something happened, however, that disturbed my peace. Shortly after the Liturgy began, I noticed a busy cameraman rolling his equipment up and down a side a isle. The local news station was getting footage to cover the latest controversy--the District of Columbia's City Council vs. the Catholic Church. Immediately, my soul was on fire with the cry to battle!

A few days earlier, on July 11, the D.C. City Council passed "The Health Insurance Coverage for Contraceptives Act of 2000" (Bill 13-399). This bill requires all employers to pay for contraceptives in their prescription drug plans. Religious organizations are not exempt–all are forced to provide all types of contraceptives. In its present state, this bill is a flagrant attack on religious freedom. What makes it all the more horrifying is that it is happening in the capital of the United States of America. As this article goes to print, Mayor Anthony Williams, a Catholic, was considering whether to urge the City Council to add a conscience clause.

If this bill becomes law, it means that in our nation's capital all religious institutions must comply regardless of their beliefs. For the Catholic Church this includes all parishes, elementary and high schools, hospitals, numerous houses of religious communities which have employees (e.g., Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites, Oblates of Mary Immaculate, etc.), the Catholic University of America, Georgetown University, and even the National Conference of Catholic Bishops!

Even more reprehensible is the fact that blatant anti-Catholic bigotry took center stage as Council members debated its terms. So vulgar was the debate that, as the reported, it revealed "some of the worst nativist tendencies of olden days." Auxiliary bishop of Washington, Most Rev. William Lori, who attended the hearing, said that four Council members were especially virulent in their expressions concerning the Church. Member Jim Graham (Ward 1) said "I've spent years fighting Church dogma." Graham glared at Bishop Lori as he warned against a "homophobic Church" that will now "determine people's medical care, if Catholic institutions are allowed a conscience exemption." If the Council were to accept any such exemption, he said, "we are permitting religious principles to dictate public health policy." Another Council member said that any employer who does not provide contraceptive coverage is guilty of "employee discrimination." Still another warned of the "slippery slope" that a conscience clause might create--if churches are allowed to bow out, citing moral objections to contraception and abortion, who's to say they won't try to opt out of mandatory benefits for same-sex "domestic partners" down the road?

Toleration, is often the battle cry for defenders of our First Amendment rights. The self-styled champion of these rights, the ACLU, should have been on the scene helping to save the day. NOT! They not only turned the other way, but their usual commitment to freedom of speech and religion melted in the light of their advocacy for "reproductive rights." A member of the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project commented that this type of "contraceptive equity legislation" is only fair; religious freedom needs no protection.

There were some voices of reason, however. The Washington Times reported that "congressional leaders reprimanded the D.C. Council." Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Ok) criticized the Council members' "bigotry" and introduced an amendment to block the D.C. law. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-VA), chair of the House Government Reform subcommittee on the District, said "the House will amend the . . . legislation rather than pass it whole." This sentiment, he noted, comes from both Democrats as well as Republicans.

Why did this happen in a city where democracy is practically a religion? My colleague Richard Doerflinger's assessment is that abortion advocates "have been losing the political battle over abortion. So they see a need to switch to something more appealing." Regardless of the reasons, this effort belittles and runs roughshod over the religious beliefs of millions of Americans. Clearly these efforts must be stopped. There is no rest from such mischief!

Theresa Notare is the Special Assistant of the Diocesan Development Program for Natural Family Planning, Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, National Conference of Catholic Bishops.