Catholic News Service
INDIANAPOLIS — The debate over the federal contraceptive mandate and the fight for religious freedom is not about “a particular policy choice” but is “a debate over the role of religion in American society and the freedom and integrity of the Catholic Church’s mission,” the head of the Knights of Columbus said June 22.
“It’s not an ordinary national debate. There’s a great deal at stake here,” Supreme Knight Carl Anderson said in an interview in Indianapolis. It is an attempt “to redefine the role of religion in America,” he added.
Anderson was at the Catholic Media Conference, the annual joint convention of the Catholic Press Association and the Catholic Academy for Communications Arts Professionals. He addressed the closing banquet of the June 20-22 media gathering.
The mandate issued by the Department of Health and Human Services would require most religious employers to provide contraceptives and sterilization free of charge to their employees.
To be exempt, a religious organization must have “the inculcation of religious values as its purpose”; primarily employ “persons who share its religious tenets”; primarily serve “persons who share its religious tenets”; and be a nonprofit organization under specific sections of the Internal Revenue Code.
Catholics are at the center of the HHS debate right now, he said, but it began with the Lutherans in the Supreme Court case in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, a challenge to a Lutheran school’s firing of a teacher. The attempt to more narrowly define who is a religious employee was unanimously rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Anderson said “virtually every religious denomination” in the U.S. — “from the Hare Krishnas to the Catholic Church” — got involved in the case because the position taken by the Obama administration on Hosanna-Tabor, he said, could be characterized as the government’s most restrictive definition of religious ministry.
Chief Justice John Roberts said “not even the pope would qualify for this,” Anderson noted.
“In many ways that view of religion is continued in the HHS mandate, in the sense that once again the administration is taking a very restrictive, very narrow definition of religious institutions,” he said.
“I think it is a legitimate question to say why is this definition so narrow, and why are we looking to push religion further and further outside the public square. I think this is what this debate is about.”
According to a Knights of Columbus-Marist Poll conducted in May, nearly three in four Americans — 74 percent to 26 percent — said freedom of religion should be protected, even if it conflicts with other laws. Majorities also would protect the First Amendment conscience rights of hospitals, health care workers and insurers.
The poll found that 50 percent of Americans have heard of the debate over the federal contraceptive mandate. Overall, the poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.
Anderson told CNS he hopes the June 21-July 4 fortnight for freedom will raise the consciousness of Catholics “as to the importance of free exercise of religion and the historic role of the Catholic community in America.”
Pointing to the “tremendous contribution” of Catholic schools, charities, and hospitals and other health care facilities to U.S. society, he said the two-week observance is not just about freedom of worship but “the free exercise of a faith-based charity … which is one of the things I think differentiates American society from other countries.”
The “personal dimension of Christian charity is so important,” because it creates “a solidarity which really is foundational to a humane society” and can “really transform culture,” Anderson said, but he added that Catholics don’t “realize well enough … the potential power we have through charity to change the culture.”
Responding to claims the fortnight is politically motivated, he said it is not a partisan effort and neither is there any news in the fact the Knights of Columbus is supporting the effort financially, he said.
“It should not come as a surprise to people that the Knights support the bishops’ mission on religious freedom,” he said.