For months, this nation has been debating the coming HHS mandate, but last week, this mandate became a reality and the end of our religious freedom in this country has begun. The mandate, would effectively force religious institutions, as well as businesses and organizations, to pay for services such as contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs that are in direct conflict with their deeply held beliefs. The mandate will ask them to make the impossible choice between following the letter of the law and operating within the framework of their religious tenets.
While religious institutions have one year to comply, phase one of this mandate begins now as family businesses and organizations had to comply by August 1. Already, some are going to court to fight this mandate - and in one case so far, winning - to ensure they are not forced to abandon their right of conscience and pay for services that violate their faith.
While much of the media coverage has painted this issue as one that impacts only Catholics, it affects all people of faith. As a representatives of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod community and the evangelical Christian community, and as fellow Americans of faith, we stand in solidarity with our Catholic brothers and sisters against this mandate. This particular issue is greater than our religious divisions; instead, it goes to the very heart of religious freedom in this nation.
We believe the government has overstepped its bounds. This controversy is not merely about birth control and the Catholic Church’s views on it. The mandate stands as a de facto requirement to sacrifice conscience and faith on the altar of political expediency. This egregious violation of our most fundamental right attempts to contextualize a new narrative where our rights no longer stand endowed by our creator, but rather from ideologues on Capitol Hill.
Although our respective faiths do not have identical views on contraception, we have a moral issue with this requirement that religious institutions must cover products and services to which they have religious objections, including abortion-inducing drugs and related medications.
As we enter the next phase of this dangerous mandate, it becomes even more disturbing. The exemption provided for religious institutions narrowly specifies what constitutes a “religious employer.” In order to pass the strict guidelines of the exemption, our services as religious institutions must be provided primarily to people of our faith, and we must primarily employ people of our faith to perform these services. Most religious organizations, including hospitals, social services organizations, publishing houses, schools and more, will fail to meet the required provisions and will thus be subject to this mandate.
For the first time in our country’s history, we will have to impose religious tests on those we employ and those we help, in order to maintain our status as exempt religious employers.
A multitude of religious organizations will be forced to carefully consider if they can in good conscience continue to provide services because they cannot and will not go against their fundamental convictions to provide service to all regardless of whether those served share their beliefs. The choice made by some of those organizations to discontinue providing services will be a devastating blow to the people and families in need of the valuable help that those religious organizations provide. Imagine the scarcity of basic human services and care if scores of faith-based service providers were forced to cease their services.
Nursing homes, hospices, counseling and rehabilitation centers, after-school programs, food and shelter efforts for the poor, homes of refuge for victims of violence and abuse, hospitals, schools, thrift stores and more would no longer be able to contribute to our society. The care provided by these organizations, which are currently operating out of faith communities in every state, city and town, provides a vital web of life-sustaining support for people in need.
Religious freedom is a right guaranteed to every American by the First Amendment—set forth by the founders of our great nation. The state cannot take them away. We are committed to working to ensure that we remain free to practice the teachings of our faith. Freedom of religion extends beyond the practice of our faith in houses of worship. We must be free to put our faith into action in the public square.
In vivid ways, it is obvious how committed people of many faiths—citizens of this country—have contributed to the well-being of our nation in countless ways from its earliest days. The founders understood how utterly essential the free practice of our corresponding faiths was to the success of our national enterprise. Hence, accommodations and modifications cannot redeem this direct violation of our most sacred right. Only a complete repeal of the aforementioned mandate can begin to reconcile the damage created by the violation of our most cherished trust. In such a trust Caesar will never demand from us what only belongs to God.
People of faith in this country must streamline our efforts to push back the end of religious freedom, which started officially on August 1. We need to stand up and tell the federal government that religious people determine what violates their consciences, not bureaucrats. We have fought for a free conscience in this country, and we will continue this fight to insure that it remains.
The Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison is the 13th president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez is president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. They are board members of Conscience Cause .