Bishop's SEAC Articles

Government Mandate Threatens Religious Liberty

The Southeast Alaska Catholic
February 2012
By Most Reverend Edward J. Burns

Many of you are aware that on January 20, 2012 the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) brought forth a decision that virtually all private health plans be required to include coverage for contraceptives, abortion inducing drugs and sterilizations. With this decision, the HHS is forcing all employers, public and private, including Catholic institutions, to offer their employees health coverage that includes these “preventive services.” A lot of information about this has also made the secular press. In fact, the media has highlighted how the bishops of the Catholic Church have responded in force to this news and in turn have invited the faithful of the Church to respond, too.

With this ruling, the Administration of our Government has cast aside the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, denying to religious communities and institutions our Nation’s first and most fundamental freedom, that of religious liberty and the freedom of religion. And as a result, unless the rule is overturned, many will be compelled either to violate their consciences, or many religious institutions will drop health care coverage for employees (and suffer the penalties for doing so).

On the morning of January 20, President Barack Obama called Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, Archbishop of New York and the President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), with the news that the decision was going to be made public later in the day. Archbishop Dolan expressed to the President that he was shocked and disturbed in learning the news. Archbishop Dolan communicated this message to all the bishops in the country with the request that we share this information with the faithful of our dioceses.

In light of this, I asked that a letter from me to the parishioners of the Diocese be read at all the Masses on the weekend of January 28-29. In the letter I asked that you do two things. First of all, pray; we are a community of faith and every challenge and every obstacle in life should be met with prayer. Secondly, I asked that everyone contact our legislators in Washington, DC, asking them to support legislation that would reverse the Administration’s decision.

Since all this has taken place, there have been some developments. Politicians – both Democrats and Republicans – have spoken out about it as 154 members of Congress sent a letter to the President indicating that the decision was wrong. Even USA Today has written an editorial indicating that this is a violation of our constitutional rights. The religious blogs have indicated that over 90% of the Roman Catholic bishops have made statements about this issue. Parishioners have responded in varied ways; and over 40 non-Catholic religious organizations, including Protestant-affiliated colleges, the National Association of Evangelicals, Focus on the Family, the Assemblies of God, Northwest Nazarene University, and Eastern Mennonite University, have sent letters to the White House seeking religious protection against this HHS mandate. In their statements they say, “We write not in opposition to Catholic leaders and organizations. We write in solidarity. …Leaders of other faiths are also deeply troubled by and opposed to the mandate and the narrow exemption.” This impacts more than just the members of the Catholic Church in the United States since it strikes at the fundamental right to religious liberty of all citizens of any faith.

In reading one report, I saw that a former colleague of mine, Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, spokesperson for the USCCB, said: “When you go to a Jewish deli, you are not expecting pork chops.” That is to say, mandating that the Catholic Church provide for sterilization, artificial birth control and abortion inducing drugs within our health care plan is against Catholic Church teaching. Forcing our hand to accept this strikes at our first amendment rights.

All of this reflects the view that an individual’s basic rights can somehow be changed at the discretion of the government. We believe that this is wrong. We must never forget that this country was founded on the truth that all people “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” as the Declaration of Independence states. Our human rights come from God, not from an elected/appointed administration of the state. Unfortunately, many in our society try to change divinely established truths. In light of this, I believe that it is necessary to speak out against those who seek to take away our religious liberties.

In a recent message to some of the bishops of the US on their Ad Limina visit to Rome, Pope Benedict XVI said, “The legitimate separation of Church and State cannot be taken to mean that the Church must be silent on certain issues, nor that the State may choose not to engage, or be engaged by, the voices of committed believers in determining the values which will shape the future of the nation.”

Please join me in letting them know that this mandate is wrong and ask them to work to reverse this unjust decision.

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