01-03-2013 - Traces, n. 3


When  the scissors of the law cut out all the places of Church life
Obama’s healthcare reform violated the nature of religious entities, but when protests caused Obama to “take a step back,” what seemed an “accommodation” was actually just a subterfuge, because the problem is one of conception, not of balance sheets.

by Mattia Ferraresi

Over a year ago, with a penstroke, the American Department of Health and Human Services divided the Catholic Church and all religious institutions into two segments: on one side, the places of worship, including temples and churches and, on the other, schools, hospitals, universities, and volunteer and charitable associations. It separated the private and interior face of faith from its public manifestations, radically disassociating the tree from its fruit. And while it granted the former the protection decreed by the First Amendment to the Constitution, it forced the latter to comply with the dictates of Obama’s healthcare reform, also in matters of contraception. The decree of the HHS led by Kathleen Sebelius demands that all institutions of religious inspiration guarantee its dependents–or its students, in the case of schools and universities—healthcare insurance that also covers the costs of contraceptives and drugs for abortion.
In order not to deface the memory of the founding fathers, the technicians of the Obama administration granted the Church an “exemption” from a practice that contradicts its very nature, but with a caveat: places of worship in the strict sense are exonerated from the regulation, those dedicated to devotional services and that hire staff exclusively on the basis of religion. So we have a State that grants a religious freedom under surveillance, a freedom that disappears when the churches leave the sanctuaries and enter the fields of care, charity, and socially useful services. For all the rest, religious experience must submit to the criteria of the State, even if they are incompatible with the conscience of the faithful. Violate one’s nature or vanish: these are the alternatives offered by the government of Barack Obama. This decree prompted a cultural and legal battle with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at the frontline to defend not a particular privilege, but a principle of freedom that holds for everyone. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York and head of the American bishops, has not tired of repeating that a law of this kind violates, in the first place, the Constitution, never mind conscience, and is, by nature, “anti-American.” Over 40 religious institutions, including non-Catholic ones, have sued the government, forcing it to reconsider the law.

The new draft. On February 1st, a new version of the law was presented or, rather, an old version with what the Department euphemistically calls an “accommodation” added. The changes concern the definition of religious institutions, in some way extended beyond the confines of places of worship, and the inclusion of non-profit organizations eligible for the exemption. Pro-choice associations applauded the realism of the Administration and progressives hailed Obama’s respect for religious freedom.
In reality, the government, using a well-worn practice, did nothing other than originally propose a decree that was unacceptable for the churches, in order then to modify it slightly and make the “adapted” version seem like a generous concession.
In the new draft, for which the government has requested that comments and doubts be communicated by April 8th, not all religious non-profits are included, and some educational and charitable institutions are also excluded. In any case, the law permits free contraceptives to dependents who desire them. Who pays the difference between the two insurance plans, those with and those without contraception? The insurance companies, replies the government, hiding the fact that the additional cost will be distributed among all the dependents. With this subterfuge, employers will not pay directly for services they do not approve, but the cost will be borne by all. In addition, the law grants no exemption to private firms like Hobby Lobby, a company managed by a family of Evangelicals who denounced the Administration because the government forces them to pay for contraceptives for their employees.
What is at stake here is much greater than the balance sheet for healthcare costs: it is the concept of freedom. Dolan explains the refusal of the revised version of the law: “The Administration’s proposal maintains its inaccurate distinction among religious ministries. It appears to offer second-class status to our first-class institutions in Catholic healthcare, Catholic education, and Catholic charities. HHS offers what it calls an ‘accommodation’ rather than accepting the fact that these ministries are integral to our church and worthy of the same exemption as our Catholic churches.” 

Pillars of America. The Cardinal goes to the root of the problem, which is the freedom of the Church to define herself and as such to operate in society. In the paperwork of the government shysters, the only religious experience worthy of protection is the one that has no influence on public life, the one that can be enclosed within interior boundaries. According to Kyle Duncan, General Council for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty (a center that provides legal representation for almost all the subjects that have brought action against the administration), “The government knows full well that the Department of Health and Human Service’s law jeopardizes constitutional rights,” and yet refuses to truly safeguard  them. It is a matter of acknowledging, in a very secular way, the evidence that religious freedom—which in the Constitution comes before freedom of speech—is one of the pillars upon which America was built.
It is not necessary to turn to sacred texts or dogmas. Just admit that the right to religious practice must be defended. However, given that the government cannot allow itself to use Orwellian methods to censure the right of religious communities to not violate their own conscience, it has limited itself to using the scissors of law to cut out all the places of Church life that are not places of worship. In this way, incense and education, sacraments and works of charity appear as divided and spurious elements, not nourished from the one same source.
Chesterton said that “fires will be kindled to testify that two and two make four.” In America, some go to battle to demonstrate that the Church is herself.