INDIANAPOLIS (CNS) — The debate over the federal contraceptive mandate and the fight for religious freedom is not about “a particular policy choice” but is “a debate over the role of religion in American society and the freedom and integrity of the Catholic Church’s mission,” the head of the Knights of Columbus said June 22.

Emma Golczynski, 5, prays the rosary with her father, John, and brothers Brantley, 8, and Michael, 6, at St. Henry Catholic Church in Nashville, Tenn., June 21, the opening night for the U.S. bishops' "fortnight for freedom" campaign. The two-week period is meant to emphasize church teaching on religious freedom. (CNS photo/Rick Musacchio, Tennessee Register)

“It’s not an ordinary national debate. There’s a great deal at stake here,” Supreme Knight Carl Anderson told Catholic News Service in an interview in Indianapolis. It is an attempt “to redefine the role of religion in America,” he added.

Anderson was at the Catholic Media Conference, the annual joint convention of the Catholic Press Association and the Catholic Academy for Communications Arts Professionals. He was scheduled to address the closing banquet of the June 20-22 media gathering.

The mandate issued by the Department of Health and Human Services would require most religious employers to provide contraceptives and sterilization free of charge to their employees.

To be exempt, a religious organization must have “the inculcation of religious values as its purpose”; primarily employ “persons who share its religious tenets”; primarily serve “persons who share its religious tenets”; and be a nonprofit organization under specific sections of the Internal Revenue Code.

Catholics are at the center of the HHS debate right now, he said, but it began with the Lutherans in the Supreme Court case in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, a challenge to a Lutheran school’s firing of a teacher. The attempt to more narrowly define who is a religious employee was unanimously rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Anderson said “virtually every religious denomination” in the U.S. — “from the Hare Krishnas to the Catholic Church” — got involved in the case because the position taken by the Obama administration on Hosanna-Tabor, he said, could be characterized as the government’s most restrictive definition of religious ministry.

Chief Justice John Roberts said “not even the pope would qualify for this,” Anderson noted.

“In many ways that view of religion is continued in the HHS mandate, in the sense that once again the administration is taking a very restrictive, very narrow definition of religious institutions,” he told CNS.

“Some say what kind of Christian would impose that kind of restriction on religion in America? I don’t think that’s the proper question,” Anderson said, referring to remarks made about President Barack Obama’s religious faith. “I don’t think we ought to be in the business of judging people about the sincerity of their faith.

“So it’s not that question,” he continued. “But I think it is a legitimate question to say why is this definition so narrow, and why are we looking to push religion further and further outside the public square. I think this is what this debate is about.”

— By Julie Asher, Catholic News Service