Solidarity for In-the-Pews Catholics

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American Catholics will spend the next two weeks standing up for an American principle.

For months our Church has led opposition to the administration's mandate that employers provide insurance coverage for contraceptives, abortion-causing drugs, and sterilizations even when such coverage violates deeply-held religious beliefs.

From the outset Catholics have resisted the administration's narrow exemption of only certain religious ministries from this mandate; to us, the government cannot simply decree that most of our religious institutions are not religious enough to qualify for an exemption.

After attempts at negotiation failed, forty-three diverse Catholic institutions -- from the University of Notre Dame to Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh to Resurrection Catholic School of Pascagoula, Mississippi -- filed lawsuits against the mandate to secure their religious freedom and to keep government out of the business of defining what counts as a religious ministry.

And for the next two weeks, Catholics across the country will stand together in a "Fortnight for Freedom" to demonstrate, through prayer and action, the importance of religious liberty.

These efforts demonstrate a solidarity that in-the-pews Catholics should welcome. Through their coordinated legal actions, large archdioceses, small retirement homes, prestigious universities and local social service organizations have witnessed to the unity of our Church. It's no surprise that this unity is often most evident precisely in these local institutions that so explicitly serve the common good. It's these groups -- the neighborhood parish school, the local Catholic nursing home, the soup kitchen run by Catholic Charities -- that will suffer most if the mandate and the stiff fines that it imposes remain in force.

Some have tried to revive the tired paradigm that pits conservative and liberal Catholics against each other. But that misses the real story. Differences over tactics and tone are secondary; what's remarkable is how Catholics have stood as one against the regulation's failure to recognize the religious mission of social welfare institutions.

The Catholic commitment to religious freedom doesn't stem from partisan political concerns. Anyone who's listened to a dinner-table political argument among Catholics knows there's no way this diverse group of litigants agrees about who they'll pull the lever for in November. In fact, months before these lawsuits were filed against the administration, Catholic bishops filed a Supreme Court brief arguing against Arizona's Republican-sponsored immigration law on religious liberty grounds. Alabama Catholic bishops have made similar arguments against their state's immigration law as well.

Before the administration initiated this controversy, a long-standing bipartisan consensus existed in favor of health care conscience exemptions and a robust conception of religious freedom. With broad Democratic support, President Clinton signed laws that included strong conscience exemptions. Senator Ted Kennedy wrote Pope Benedict XVI that he believed in "a conscience protection for Catholics in the health field." And President Clinton signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which codifies strong free exercise protections, after it passed the Senate 97-3. Just recently, former Clinton administration official (and RFRA point-man) William Galston told attendees at a religious liberty conference that he believes the HHS mandate violates RFRA.

If anything, it's the administration that has politicized this serious issue by portraying opposition to the mandate as evidence of a manufactured "war on women". It's patronizing for the administration to assume that Catholic women are fair-weather believers willing to trade limits on religious freedom for the promise of free contraception.

No one wants a solution to this problem more than front-line institutions serving the poor and needy. They would welcome a workable compromise, one patterned after the same common-sense conscience exemptions found in countless other federal and state laws. Unfortunately, for all its talk of compromise, the administration has yet to take concrete steps towards a solution, and the mandate itself has been adopted without change. As Notre Dame's Father John Jenkins puts it, the administration has "provide[d] little in the way of a specific, substantive proposal or a definite timeline for resolution...making it impossible for us to plan for and implement any changes to our health plans by the government-mandated deadlines."

In other words, the clock is ticking. Too much is at stake for Catholics to just sit on their hands and hope that all will work out in the end. Despite attempts to divide us, Catholics are standing together with strength and purpose and standing up for religious freedom.

Kim Daniels is a coordinator of Catholic Voices USA.

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