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Who Needs Religious Freedom?

October 3, AD2013 11 Comments


It’s ironic. The same day President Obama was in New York lecturing the United Nations on human rights and moral imperatives, a religious congregation of Catholic nuns, the Little Sisters of the Poor, was in Colorado filing a lawsuit to stop the Obama administration from trampling their religious freedom.

According to the Obama administration, the nuns don’t qualify as a “religious employer” eligible for an exemption from the Health and Human Services (HHS) contraceptive mandate. The nuns’ nearly 200-year history, in over 30 countries, of providing homes for “the neediest elderly” – welcoming them “as Christ” in fidelity to their religious mission  – matters not a whit.

The Obama folks think the nuns are more “employer” than “religious employer.” How’s that, you say? The nuns flunk the Obama administration’s narrow identity test for religious organizations precisely because the nuns adhere to a faith-inspired mission of serving all needy elderly folks, regardless of faith, and because they welcome all kinds of good people, regardless of faith, to join their work serving the poor.

The nuns’ big hearts don’t fit Obama’s ‘religious’ straitjacket.

Without the “religious employer” exemption, the nuns must comply with the Health and Human Services regulations requiring employers to provide insurance coverage for contraception, sterilization, and emergency contraception—coverage that the nuns’ consciences, as well as the core values of their non-profit organizations, will not permit them to offer. (The nuns’ vision is to “contribute to the Culture of Life” and their values prioritize “reverence for the sacredness of human life.”)

But in the eyes of Team Obama, the nuns are just doing social work while wearing religious symbols. Nothing more. The Administration dismisses the nuns’ religious motivation, refuses to acknowledge the nuns’ work as an exercise of their religious liberty, and consequently frames their conscience-driven decisions (such as refusing to pay for coverage of emergency contraception) as outside the scope of religious liberty protections. Obama sees no difference (or at least no value) in the nuns’ work, compared to the secular nursing home franchise down the block.

The real truth is that many progressives, like Obama, seem to view religion as something good only insofar it generates diversity and inspires progressive social justice work. (Assuming, of course, that the faith-based social justice work doesn’t get in the way of the larger progressive agenda for social change. Faith-based adoption services further social justice aims, for example, but if they don’t allow same-sex couples to adopt, then they are heaved aside as stumbling blocks on the path to more significant social change, such as LGBT ‘equality.’)

Think back to January 16, 2013, when President Obama drew fire for shrinking ‘religious freedom’ down to the more limited phrase “freedom to worship” in his Presidential Proclamation of Religious Freedom Day.

That wasn’t all he did. His Proclamation symbolically trimmed ‘religious freedom’ even more, deleting mention of Americans’ rights to “follow their conscience”—a central notion of religious liberty and one that he’d included in this proclamations until 2013.  (The Proclamation is a symbolic document, not a legal one, but it’s illustrative of the President’s views on religious liberty.)

The Proclamation underscores the value Obama places on religious liberty as a reflection of diversity. His Proclamation applauds how our American “story” has been “shaped” by a “patchwork heritage” of “Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, Sikhs and non-believers,” and praises America’s “diversity of faiths, cultures, and traditions” and our history of “tolerance.”

It also suggests that Obama values religious liberty when it’s politically useful. He celebrates religion for its power to prompt progressive social change, with little recognition that the desire to seek God is natural to human beings and that religion is vital to human flourishing. In the Obama worldview, our history of religious liberty is a story of Americans who wear a variety of ‘faith hats’ while working together for social change.

“Americans of every faith have molded the character of our Nation. They were pilgrims who sought refuge from persecution; pioneers who pursued brighter horizons; protesters who fought for abolition, women\’s suffrage, and civil rights. Each generation has seen people of different faiths join together to advance peace, justice, and dignity for all.”

Barack Obama, Presidential Proclamation, Religious Freedom Day (2013)

Religion is a mean to an end—a vehicle for social change, defined by the progressive agenda. But make no mistake: the progressive agenda for social change trumps personal conscience and the value of religious liberty. When religion or conscience gets in the way of the Obama-defined social agenda, it must give way.

And that’s the story of the nuns: Their work caring for the poor is good. But the social ‘good’ of free contraception for all is even better. So the nuns’ conscience rights (which make them unwilling to provide contraception coverage) must give way.

If the nuns’ religious beliefs, which animate their work caring for the elderly, enjoy no constitutional protections simply because those beliefs are exercised in a non-profit context, then religiously-motivated entities (and religious people) may end up being driven from charitable public service.

And maybe that’s the real goal after all.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Mary Rice Hasson is a Fellow in EPPC's Catholic Studies program. Mrs. Hasson is currently working on a book that offers new data on and explores the views of Catholic women on sexual morality and reproduction and on the Catholic Church's teachings on those topics. She recently co-authored an article on media ratings in the June 2011 issue of the professional journal Pediatrics. She writes commentary for the Catholic News Agency, which also distributes her columns to diocesan newspapers throughout the United States. She also writes from a natural law perspective for the international human rights website,, and for a variety of Catholic parenting websites. She blogs at Words from Cana. The mother of seven, Mrs. Hasson previously co-authored with Kimberly Hahn the leading book on Catholic homeschooling, Catholic Education Homeward Bound (Ignatius, 1995). She has spoken at numerous family conferences over the past 15 years, and has appeared on CNN, EWTN, and numerous local radio shows. A lawyer and member of the D.C. and Indiana bars, Mrs. Hasson graduated from the University of Notre Dame Law School in 1984 and from the University of Notre Dame in 1981, with a BA in Government.

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