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Editorial: It’s a First Amendment issue

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To deny conscience rights, government refuses to call Catholic charities, hospitals and colleges ‘religious’

You don’t have to be a conservative Catholic to be dismayed by the Obama administration’s decision to force Catholic hospitals, Catholic colleges and Catholic charitable institutions to buy insurance plans for their employees that cover contraceptives, including some that can cause abortion, and sterilizations, even though the church teaches abortion, sterilization and contraception are immoral.

That’s because the U.S. Health and Human services rule violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that forbids laws that impede the free exercise of religion.

The Obama administration is well aware of the First Amendment. So, in its zeal to provide free birth control in every medicine cabinet, it has decided to eliminate the crowning achievements of Catholic ministry in the United States — Catholic hospitals, Catholic colleges and Catholic charities and social services — from its narrow definition of religious work, thereby eliminating them from its religious exemption from the contraception mandate.

Here’s how the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services decides that an organization is religious enough to be exempt from its mandate:

• the organization has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose;

• the organization primarily employs people who share its religious beliefs;

• the organization primarily serves people who share its religious tenets;

• and the organization is nonprofit, according to the Internal Revenue Service code.

In other words, in order to qualify as a religious organization, a Catholic charity must only serve Catholics.

That definition is absurd. It flies in the face of the basic notion of Christianity, the call to love all our neighbors. It perverts the definition of religious charity into helping only the people who believe what you believe, instead of feeding all the hungry, caring for all the sick and sheltering all the homeless.

It’s good that our nation’s founders thought the notion of the government trying to dictate religious practices was abhorrent. That’s why the First Amendment forbids such interference.

In the Obama administration’s nearly religious zeal that contraception and sterilization be provided by all employers, it first required that Catholic Church institutions pay for such health benefits in violation of their moral beliefs.

When that dictate created a furor of objections, including a Washington Post editorial that said it exposed “the fundamental problem of requiring religiously affiliated entities to spend their own money in a way that contradicts the tenets of their faith,” the administration decided to tamper with the meaning of the word “free” in addition to its unique definition of “religious.”

On Feb. 10, President Obama announced his compromise that would prevent Catholic entities from paying for sterilizations and contraceptives by stating the coverage would be provided “free” by the insurance companies church agencies contract with for their health plans.

But there’s no such thing as a free lunch or birth control. It’s impossible to imagine the costs of  “free” not being added to the insurance fees Catholic hospitals, universities or charities pay their insurers.

When the United States tells more than 600 Catholic hospitals, more than 200 Catholic colleges and universities and countless Catholic faith-based charitable organizations that they don’t qualify as religious organizations, it’s denigrating centuries of faith-inspired service by Catholics and their institutions to people of all beliefs.

When the government declares sterilizations and birth control will be provided free, without any costs incurred by insurers, employers or employees of religious groups, it’s attempting to redefine the concepts of “economics” and “business” and, perhaps, “money.”

Merriam-Webster might be invoked to inform the government what the word “free” means. But, until the White House actually confers with U.S. bishops — the administration’s compromise was reached without any bishop being consulted  — to reach a mutual agreement on health insurance mandates, Congress and the courts will more than likely be asked to define the meanings of the First Amendment and religion for the executive branch.

So write your representatives and senators in Congress and ask them to respect the First Amendment and support the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act.