Defending religious liberty

On Jan. 20, 2012, the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) brought forth a decision that virtually all private health plans be required to include coverage for contraceptives, abortion inducing drugs and sterilizations. The HHS has identified these as “preventive services” — as if having a child were a disease.

With this decision, the HHS is forcing all employers, public and private, including Catholic institutions, to offer their employees health coverage that includes these “preventive services”. Almost all individuals will be forced to buy this coverage as a part of their health care policies. On Sept. 28, 2011, I signed a letter with the other two Catholic Bishops of Alaska and we sent the message to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, asking that this unconscionable decision not take place.

Nevertheless, with this ruling, the Administration of our Government has cast aside the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, denying to religious communities and institutions our Nation’s first and most fundamental freedom, that of religious liberty and the freedom of religion. And as a result, unless the rule is overturned, many will be compelled either to violate their consciences, or many religious institutions will drop health care coverage for employees (and suffer the penalties for doing so).

On the morning of Jan. 20, President Barack Obama called Archbishop of New York Timothy M. Dolan, who is also the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, with the news that the decision was going to be made public later in the day. Archbishop Dolan expressed to President Obama that he was shocked and disturbed in learning the news. Archbishop Dolan communicated this message to all the bishops in the country with the request that we share this information with the faithful of our dioceses.

Last weekend I asked that a letter from me to all the parishioners of the Diocese be read at all the Masses in Southeast Alaska. In it, I said, “The Church cannot comply with this unjust law. People of faith cannot be made second class citizens. We are already joined by our brothers and sisters of all faiths and many others of good will in this important effort to regain our religious freedom. Our parents and grandparents did not come to these shores to help build America’s cities and towns, its infrastructure and institutions, its enterprise and culture, only to have their posterity stripped of their God given rights.”

In the letter I asked that the faithful do two things. First of all, to pray; we are a community of faith and every challenge and every obstacle in life should be met with prayer. Secondly, I asked that they contact our legislators in Washington, D.C. asking them to support legislation that would reverse the Administration’s decision.

Since all this has taken place, there have been some developments. The national secular news agencies have reported on it and the religious blogs have indicated that more than 80 percent of the Roman Catholic bishops have made statements about this issue. Parishioners have responded in varied ways; and more than 40 non-Catholic religious organizations, including Protestant-affiliated colleges, the National Association of Evangelicals, Focus on the Family, the Assemblies of God, Northwest Nazarene University, and Eastern Mennonite University, have sent a letter to the White House seeking religious protection against this HHS mandate. In their statement they say, “We write not in opposition to Catholic leaders and organizations. We write in solidarity. …Leaders of other faiths are also deeply troubled by and opposed to the mandate and the narrow exemption.”

This impacts more than just the members of the Catholic Church in the United States since it strikes at the fundamental right to religious liberty of all citizens of any faith. From my perspective, I could not imagine any decent person or government agency wishing anything upon a religious institution that is against that institution’s conscience, until this announcement by the HHS.

The implications of this action are even deeper. It reflects the view that an individual’s basic rights can somehow be changed at the discretion of the government. We believe that this is wrong. We must never forget that this country was founded on the truth that all people “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” as the Declaration of Independence states. Our human rights come from God, not from an elected/appointed administration of the state. Unfortunately, many in our society try to change divinely established truths. In light of this, I believe that it is necessary to speak out against those who seek to take away our religious liberties.

• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.


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