State and Church

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President Obama picked a fight with Catholics last month when he announced his administration would force nearly all religious organizations to fully subsidize contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs as part of its health care coverage for employees.

This unprecedented move by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has been widely criticized by many, including some of the president’s most ardent supporters, as a serious attack on the religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It is a move by the State to tell the Church how it may or may not worship. Separation of Church and State is a two-way street.

Not only did Catholics not turn the other cheek in this fight, Church leaders and her supporters took the fight right back to the Obama Administration in a big way. In January the U.S. bishops began mobilizing efforts to spread the word about this grave injustice, first by speaking out from the pulpit during Masses, and then followed by a constant stream of information pushed out via television, radio and social media — picking up supporters from those of different faith communities along the way.

Even mainstream media outlets — not typically known to be champions of Church-related causes — are questioning the wisdom of the president’s approach.

On. Jan. 29, The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne Jr. opined that the president “utterly botched” the handling of the situation and “threw his progressive Catholic allies under the bus.”

The Arizona Republic, in a Feb. 10 editorial, called the president’s desire to pick fights with Catholics during an election year as “inexplicable” and “hard-headed.”

Self-described liberal and Democrat Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter expressed great displeasure with the president on Jan. 21, writing that he failed to “see how I ever could, in good conscience, vote for this man again.”

‘Accommodation’ for religious organizations

But on Friday, after three weeks of intense pushback from Catholics and other like-minded organizations, the president announced an apparent change in policy — a so-called “accommodation” — that would allow religious employers not to pay for the controversial “health care services” that are contrary to its teachings. Instead, the new policy would require the insurance companies to pick up the tab with no out-of-pocket cost for employees.

Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, responded in a brief statement by calling it a “first step in the right direction.” He cautioned, though, that it was too soon to determine if there was an improvement on the core concerns of religious liberty.

Reaction to the Feb. 10 announcement varied.

Catholic League President Bill Donohue said the president is engaging in a “divide and conquer strategy” to “peel off liberal Catholic opposition to Obamacare.”

Alliance Defense Fund Senior Counsel Doug Napier said that the announcement does not change anything.

“Contrary to the administration’s spin, the issue is not about ‘accommodating’ religion; this is about acknowledging a fundamental religious liberty not given by the government, but endowed by our Creator,” he said. “The administration is trying to take away what it can’t give.”

There are some who argue for the government on this issue and frame it as an issue strictly about birth control. The media has been feeding into this misconception by positioning the story as a “contraception controversy.” Another classic move is to trot out a poll illustrating the number of Catholic women using birth control. The goal here is to create a distraction from the core issue and to discredit the Catholic Church in the process. Not only that, it is extremely insulting to the millions of Catholics who abide by the Church teaching on contraception.

But in reality, this is about the government violating the First Amendment and denying religious organizations — not just Catholics — their God-given right to worship as they see fit. It is not the role of the State to define the Church.

Obviously this adjustment to the HHS mandate will be looked at from all angles in an effort to make heads or tails of it. This is a complex issue with many questions that still need answers.

Regrettably, the fight is not over. In fact, this may be just the beginning.

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