If there is one freedom our country has consistently cherished, it is the right to freedom of conscience: the right to act or not to act as conscience dictates. Thomas Jefferson wrote that “no provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of civil authority.”
Indeed, even before the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, the Continental Congress passed a resolution in 1775 exempting pacifists from military enlistment:
As there are some people, who, from religious principles, cannot bear arms in any case, this Congress intend no violence to their consciences, but earnestly recommend it to them, to contribute liberally in this time of universal calamity, to the relief of their distressed brethren in the several colonies, and to do all other services to their oppressed Country, which they can consistently with their religious principles.
Our forefathers understood that, even in times of great need and hardship, conscience must be preserved and protected.
Despite our country’s long-standing commitment to the rights of conscience, the Obama administration has undermined it in an especially egregious way.
The mandate imposed by the Department of Health and Human Services earlier this year, requiring health insurance plans to include coverage for abortifacient drugs, contraception, and sterilization, contains no exemption for religious charities, universities, and other institutions that provide for the needs of others. The failure of the mandate to allow for such an exemption is a slap in the face of those institutions that object to these services on moral or religious grounds.
But the mandate is not just an attack on religious institutions. It is an attack on those individuals these institutions serve. After determining that it could not in good conscience follow the new regulations, the Franciscan University of Steubenville, a Catholic school in Ohio with over 2,000 undergraduates, has announced that it will no longer offer a health insurance plan to its students, a benefit the university had long provided. Ave Maria University in Florida, also a Catholic college, is contemplating whether to follow suit. And, it was announced Monday, Franciscan University, along with Notre Dame University, the Catholic University of America and dozens of other Catholic institutions have filed suit against the administration challenging the HHS mandate.
It doesn’t take a theological degree to understand why Franciscan was coerced into making this move. The Catholic Church believes that abortifacient drugs are an affront to the sacredness of life and that sterilization and contraception undermine the integrity of human sexuality and the dignity of the person. As a university founded upon, nourished by, and dedicated to the teachings of the Catholic faith, Franciscan simply cannot kowtow to a government-imposed mandate that would force it to violate those teachings. In the spirit of its patron, St. Francis of Assisi, the university is practicing what it preaches.
The notion that the Obama administration is seeking to accommodate nonprofit entities like Franciscan by shifting the cost of the objectionable services to the insurance carrier defies plain logic. Franciscan is the one that would pay for the plan through which these services would be made available. Franciscan is the one that would pay the higher premiums that would surely follow. Despite the administration’s insistence to the contrary, Franciscan should have the right to contract with a carrier that does not provide services the university believes to be gravely immoral.
Anyone who thought that an effort to trample upon the conscience rights of religious institutions nationwide would be without cost should no longer be fooled. In this case, over 2,000 undergraduate students will no longer be able to obtain health insurance through their school. Going forward, who knows how many other Catholic schools and charities will be forced to stop serving others on account of the HHS edict. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, former head of the USCCB recently warned, “Unless the Obama administration’s mandate that all health insurers offer abortifacient drugs and sterilization is rescinded, Catholic hospitals and health care institutions in the United States will be gone in a couple years.”
The decision of Franciscan University is not the fault of the university. It is a praiseworthy example of adhering to religious principles in the face of government hostility. Any blame for the loss of insurance coverage for the university’s students should be placed where it truly belongs: upon the Obama administration and its pursuit of an agenda that cares not for rights of conscience.
With a Supreme Court decision on ObamaCare due in June and a presidential election in November, not to mention the numerous lawsuits currently pending in federal court challenging the HHS mandate, time will tell whether the promise of our forefathers respecting the sanctity of conscience will be honored or ignored in the near and far future.
Geoffrey Surtees is an attorney with the ACLJ and specializes in religious civil liberties. Jordan Sekulow is Executive Director of the American Center for Law & Justice and writes for On Faith’s blogging network at the Washington Post.