Cardinal Donald Wuerl is archbishop of Washington.
From an early age, Catholics are taught to see God in their neighbor. The Catholic faith finds its fullest expression in a loving act of sacrifice by one stranger for another. Imagine the church’s surprise, then, to be told by the federal government that when a Catholic organization serves its neighbors, it isn’t really practicing its religion.
That is the unacceptable principle at the heart of a mandate, issued in February by the Department of Health and Human Services, that requires religious organizations to provide health-care coverage for abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilization procedures, even if their faith teaches that those drugs and procedures are wrong. That is what has prompted the Archdiocese of Washington to go to court to protect our First Amendment right to practice our religion without government interference.
This lawsuit, filed Monday by the archdiocese and other Catholic organizations in our city, is not about contraception. Women are free to obtain and use contraception. The assertion that these products are hard to obtain or expensive is not true. Nothing in this lawsuit challenges women’s right to obtain these drugs and procedures.
The lawsuit is about religious freedom. As is the norm with such laws, the HHS mandate includes an exemption for religious organizations. If the religious exemption in this case were reasonable, there would have been no need for this lawsuit — after all, we are indeed “religious” under any sensible definition. But this mandate’s religious exemption is the narrowest ever adopted in federal law. For example, it doesn’t include any organization that serves the general public. So under this mandate, our Catholic hospitals, schools and social service programs, which serve all comers, are not “Catholic enough” to be allowed to follow our Catholic beliefs.
The mandate’s definition of a religious organization contradicts decades of precedent and practice. Republicans and Democrats alike have long agreed that the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty includes not only what goes on within the four walls of a church but also the religiously motivated acts of service that fulfill the mission of that church’s faith. Only now, with this mandate’s demands, has the federal government said that we must leave our conscience behind when we step into the public square.
If the mandate’s religious exemption is left unchanged, it would allow an employee of the federal government to determine what is, or is not, a religious ministry. The Archdiocese of Washington is this area’s largest nongovernmental provider of social services. Catholic schools in the archdiocese teach and nurture 28,000 children. Catholic hospitals provide millions of dollars’ worth of uncompensated care every year to our city’s poor and vulnerable. As the Catholic maxim states, “We serve others not because they are Catholic, but because we are Catholic.” Yet it is possible that not one of these organizations would fit the mandate’s definition. Does anyone really think that the work of Mother Teresa wasn’t religious?