A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Monday, February 13, 2012

The HHS Conscience Clause: Religion Is Only About What Happens Within the Walls of the Church

The recent flap over the Obama Administration's refusal to expand the HHS Conscience Clause to exempt religious affiliated institutions from providing contraceptives and abortion services provides in interesting case study in how often people fail to realize the underlying assumptions and larger ramifications of any decision that is made. And while the President offered what he says is a compromise, the Catholic bishops have rejected the gesture saying that it is nothing but an accounting trick. Indeed, a letter is now circulating, authored from the University of Notre Dame Law School, stating that the Obama compromise is unacceptable. It has been signed by many Catholic and other religious leaders and scholars in several disciplines and no doubt more will follow.

I happen to agree with those who believe that nothing has truly changed in light of Friday's compromise, except that, unlike some others, I will not assign nefarious motives to the president and his cabinet. I will not play the partisan game of always seeing one's political opponents as bad, evil, conniving, and dishonest. I assume that the decision on Friday was a good faith effort at a compromise. Nevertheless, the decision really changes nothing. Health care providers will still pass the cost of contraceptive coverage onto the employer even though it will not explicitly say so on the books. Thus, religiously affiliated institutions will still be providers of something they morally object to offering. And there is still the matter of religiously affiliated health insurers.

Several Protestants have expressed surprise that I have come out on the side of the Catholic bishops on this (I have received a few choicely worded emails). I am after all a Protestant, and a mainliner too, which means, I gather from those not-so-nice emails, that I should find the position of the Catholic Church to be outdated and therefore to be rejected. But when it comes to Christian doctrine and practice, I do not subscribe to the "Flavor of the Month Club." In actuality, I am not in complete agreement with the Catholic Church on contraception, but I find that irrelevant in this matter. And while I too am concerned about women's health (I have a wife and two daughters), I reject the argument that those who are against the HHS mandate are assaulting women's health. And, yes, I am a man which means for some I have nothing of value to say about this matter. I will only appeal to more than a few of the women I know in my life who find the assault rhetoric to be over-the-top.

I certainly realize that the people on both sides feel strongly about this issue and both groups can offer some justification for their views, but there is a bigger picture here because of the assumptions involved concerning religion and its practices in this ruling by the HHS. And I believe we ignore that larger picture at our peril. The unforeseen ramifications down the road might well be something all religious persons regret. In this post, I want to highlight only one greatly problematic assumption for Christians in this ruling.

The HHS conscience clause allows for churches to opt out of providing contraceptive services if they are a church, that is, if they are a religious body that offers worship, and word, and sacrament, and specifically Christian education (Apparently, if you teach social studies at a Catholic school, that is not a religious endeavor, because the Lordship of Jesus Christ doesn't extend into the world, which is why God only cares about our children learning the Bible.) So why are church's exempt? Because the administration has deemed that what the church does inside the walls of its building is religious in character and therefore is to be protected by the first amendment. In this instance, therefore the government has no right to interfere. Things are different, however, according to the HHS, with religiously affiliated institutions such as hospitals and orphanages and charities. Since the Obama Administration has concluded that those institutions can be regulated, it has decided by default that the work of these institutions are not religious. Therefore, the first amendment does not apply.

I have to say as a mainline Methodist, I really appreciate the irony of this. Mainliners have either been quite silent on the HHS ruling or they have basically sided with it. And in so doing they have also unwittingly embraced the assumption that their work for social justice is basically secular in nature-- that the church is  only the church when it is the gathered community inside the building with the steeple on top. Thus, what religious people are doing in feeding the poor, and caring for the sick, and taking care of orphans is not religious per se; it is secular. And if mainliners for social justice reject that assumption, the first amendment now applies to religiously affiliated hospitals, orphanages, etc. and the HHS Conscience Clause in its current form is unconstitutional. Indeed, I would suggest that if the HHS ruling is correct, then for the purposes of statecraft, the language of religious affiliation makes no sense.

But that is not all. There are other larger issues afoot, which are troubling. More on that in my next post.

19 comments:

Gary said...

I'm still undecided on this issue. I agree with much you have to say here, but my money is used to support things I'm not in favor of as well. A pastor friend didn't like a portion of his taxes going to support the military, so he deducted it. Of course, there were consequences for his actions. If the Catholic church doesn't want to play by the governments rules, they do have options, right? I would also like to know more about what they church is already paying for in their insurance policies before I let them off the hook re: women's health.

Dennis Sanders said...

Alan,

I thought you might want to see what Carol Howard Merritt wrote. She's a Presbyterian pastor. I lean more in your direction on this, but I thought you might want to know about this.

http://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2012-02/would-jesus-dispense-contraceptive-pills

Allan Bevere said...

Thanks, Dennis... I will check out the link later today.

PopLid said...

Your comment about bigger issues being involved my be more prophetic than you intended...
There is a group that is not being heard from. That is the group of Catholic women who would be covered by the employer's insurance. The word on the street says that 98% of Catholic women who are having sex are using birth control. Has anyone asked them if they would like to obtain it without an insurance copay?
The bigger issue here is why the Bishops still speak for and of those women as if that 98 percent were 1%. And what of the "partners" of that 98%...must be all non-Catholic, right?

Allan Bevere said...

Frank, I will actually deal with that issue in my next post. But simply to say at this point is that the essential convictions of the church are not up for popular whim.

Allan Bevere said...

I have to say that what I find interesting here is that no one has chosen to respond to my argument in this post.

Why is that?

PopLid said...

It may be that the reason no one is responding is the same issue we just raised. Within the Church, one has no voice....and that's the elephant in the nathex.

Allan Bevere said...

Moreover, no one is answering my question because no one knows exactly how to refute my claim.

PopLid said...

Respecfully, although I cannot speak for them, I believe they are doing that which is necessary to get by. In that process, they pay the taxes that they must, and bow to those in power (and Obama is not one of them) so as to obtain that which they need to survive. The Church and Caesar are just two of those powers. Woman world wide are struggling with that situation. They are no longer satisfied to do it silently.

PopLid said...

If by your claim you mean that only the gathering under the steeple is being the church, That is your claim, not those who "side" with the administration.
When the homeless are fed at Haven of Rest, my understanding that the food is free, but the recipients must first "gather under the steeple" to listen to a sermon, before they are fed. Which part of that is the social justice, and which is evangelizing? Should an athiests (or Jews, or Catholics) tax dollars help pay for the food if they don't agree with the concepts being preached? So far, no one has objected.

Allan Bevere said...

"If by your claim you mean that only the gathering under the steeple is being the church, That is your claim, not those who "side" with the administration."

Frank, that is precisely the claim of the Administration, which is why they argue the first amendment does not apply.

PopLid said...

Two points:
1) The"administration" is not the bad guy in this. There are many States which have already had the same health care provision for some years, including 8 States which have no exclusion for churches. These are existing State Laws which would be overruled by the HHS ruling, thus allowing an exception where none exists now.
2) There are many Catholic leaders who want to extend the exclusion to include the religeous convictions of any employer. One example was that a devout Catholic who opens a Taco Bell should not be required ("forced") to provide birth control for his employees, because his personal convictions should trump the HHS.
Sounds to me like the Catholic Bishops are making inroads into control of "secular" activities, thereby blurring the separation of church and state, not the other way around.

PopLid said...

Here we Go!
According to ThinkProgress.org (found here http://thinkprogress.org/health/2012/02/10/423346/gop-ups-the-ante-introduces-legislation-to-allow-any-employer-to-deny-any-preventive-health-service/ )

"next week Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) is expected to offer an amendment that would permit any employer or insurance plan to exclude any health service, no matter how essential, from coverage if they morally object to it:..." It explains the ammendment further:
"Under the measure, an insurer or an employer would be able to claim a moral or religious objection to covering HIV/AIDS screenings, Type 2 Diabetes treatments, cancer tests or anything else they deem inappropriate or the result of an “unhealthy” or “immoral” lifestyle. Similarly, a health plan could refuse to cover mental health care on the grounds that the plan believes that psychiatric problems should be treated with prayer."

Allan Bevere said...

Once again, all kinds of issues are being confused here.

My point in this post is that the assumption here is that only what happens in the four walls of a church is considered to be religious activity. That goes against historically what the church has believed.

JohnB said...

The problem which you point out Allen is that in our society we have differentiated between sacred and secular. The Bible makes no such distinction. All of life is to be lived as a sacred moment. Haven't we condemned Sunday morning Christians for years? These people practice their religion within the walls of the church, then go on Monday and forget all about what happened on Sunday.

Religious freedom is pretty much a thing of the past in American (as PopLid's Taco Bell example proves) and this controversy is just another inroads toward totally destroying it.

Allan Bevere said...

Dennis,

I did read the link you posted. Thanks for this. I have some serious disagreements with the author. What I think I will do is post a response to the article for my next post in this series. Of course, I would very much like for you to respond and offer your perspective.

Dennis Sanders said...

I thought you might have some issues with what Carol wrote. I think her question and answer (about Jesus giving out birth control pills) is the wrong question to be asking. That doesn't mean I'm against birth control, I just don't think that should be the main thing here. What I think that matters is how we follow God and what do we do when church and state collide. Carol and others would say that this is important enough that the church should get out of the way and let the state do what it needs to do. There are times when the the church needs to work with the state, but her view would have the state running rampant over the church and some in the church seem willing to bow down to Ceasar because they like this Ceasar as opposed to the other Ceasars.

I will write a response and I look forward to yours.

Allan Bevere said...

Dennis,

You are spot on. The other problem is that she seems to think that the non-negotiables of religious convictions can be nullified by the state.

That should bother any believer from any religion.

Dennis Sanders said...

Alan: I've written a response. I don't know if it makes sense, but I put it out there for review. Let me know what you think.

http://questorpastor.blogspot.com/2012/02/ceasar-and-pill.html