Freedom to Care for the Poor

Freedom to Care for the Poor
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Pope Francis has won widespread praise from people of diverse faiths for his focus on serving needy and forgotten people.

While news reports regarding the pontiff over the past few weeks have focused on doctrinal disputes among some Catholic bishops, Americans should not forget the vital -- and unifying -- themes regarding civil society and service to our neighbors that Pope Francis stressed during his U.S. visit just one month ago. In addition to his major addresses and meetings with government leaders while he was stateside, Francis used his visit to recognize and honor the disadvantaged and forgotten, as well as those who serve them.

A few of his stops in Washington were especially important. Not only did these visits showcase several highly effective Catholic nonprofits serving the poor, they raised awareness of a dangerous encroachment on faith-based ministries.

Government overreach is increasingly constricting the civil rights and liberties of people of faith and the faith-based nonprofits they form. While in Philadelphia, Pope Francis called on Americans to defend their rights, "especially your religious freedom, for it has been given to you by God himself."

Pope Francis made an unannounced visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor, undoubtedly boosting the morale of this embattled order of nuns who spend their days caring for the elderly in loving group homes around the nation. At St. Patrick's Church, he blessed and ate with hundreds of homeless men, women, and children, as well as the volunteers and other leaders who serve them through Catholic Charities, one of the nation's leading advocates for social justice.

To ensure he could spend time with these homeless people, Francis even turned down an invitation to lunch with then-Speaker of the House John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Francis connected with Catholic Charities expressly to draw public attention to another embattled nonprofit organization -- one that is reaching into numerous communities, annually serving more than nine million Americans in need. Hundreds of thousands of people receive help through Catholic Charities' hunger relief programs, counseling services, mental health support, and disaster relief. In 2013, nearly a million clients received their healthcare services, while more than 700,000 received otherwise-unaffordable high-quality education.

In cities across the country, faith-based organizations -- like Little Sisters of the Poor and Catholic Charities -- are on the front lines supporting hungry, homeless, abused, and addicted people. In the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, which I serve as president, every agency is full every single night. Last year, our 300 member missions served 66 million restaurant-style meals at no cost and provided 20 million nights of safe shelter. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers and professionals -- motivated by their faith -- assisted 45,000 adults in finding employment, graduated 16,000 from addiction recovery programs, and placed 36,000 individuals and families into independent housing. Each of the 300 missions stays open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

One member of Congress remarked after reviewing a mission's work, "If the government tried to take over what you're doing, in no time at all it would be twice as expensive and half as effective."

Many other faith-based nonprofits -- from large relief organizations such as World Vision to countless inner-city ministries that do everything from mental health assessment for the elderly to job placement for ex-offenders -- contribute enormously to the common good. Not only do these organizations reduce the burden on American taxpayers, but they also serve those who have slipped through society's crack. Moreover the way they serve is with personal touches of love and kindness -- touches that they are ideally suited to provide.

But ill-conceived government policies with inadequate protections for rights of conscience are increasingly undermining the freedom of Americans of some faiths to remain true to their religious identities while caring for needy people. For example, the Obama administration has mandated that Little Sisters of the Poor, Catholic Charities, and other faith-based charities assist the federal government's contraceptive delivery system, even though the tenets of their faith forbid this. This sweeping and unprecedented policy has forced Little Sisters and Catholic Charities to sue the government.

Scores of other faith-based organizations across America have joined the more than 100 lawsuits seeking relief from this mandate. The U.S. Supreme Court announced that the justices will hear the Little Sisters' case and six other cases challenging the administration's mandate, with oral arguments likely in March.

Such government overreach sets up an impossible dilemma. Believers can either violate their consciences and capitulate to the government's demands, or cease to be people who, using Francis's words to Congress, "create organizations which offer a helping hand to those most in need." Both are untenable options for Christian groups.

Across America, defending freedom and caring for the poor go hand in hand. "Religious liberty," Francis said, "by its nature transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families." Francis's visit reminds us that any attack on religious freedom hurts the faithful, the poor, and society as a whole.

John Ashmen is president of the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions.

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