Editorial: Taking exception

The recent decision by the Trump administration to expand the religious exemption for the Department of Health and Human Services’ controversial contraceptive mandate is a win for religious liberty in this country and an opportunity for thanksgiving for the many organizations — including Our Sunday Visitor — that have spent the past five years caught up in decidedly preventable and wasteful litigation.

Commenting formally for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, president of the USCCB, and Archbishop William E. Lori, chair of the USCCB Committee for Religious Liberty, said that the decision marks “a return to common sense, long-standing federal practice, and peaceful coexistence between church and state. It corrects an anomalous failure by federal regulators that should never have occurred and should never be repeated.”

The interim final rules, released Oct. 6 and effective immediately, though still open to revision, allow those organizations that object to paying for employer-provided contraceptives, including some abortifacients, to opt out of these services, based on religious belief or moral conviction. The rule provides relief for dozens of organizations caught in legal limbo for the past five years — perhaps none more than the Little Sisters of the Poor, who became the reluctant face of a religious liberty battle that should never have been necessary.

“The previous administration pursued a needless and divisive culture war,” said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit legal firm that worked with the Little Sisters. “It was always ridiculous to claim you need nuns to give out contraceptives. This new rule shows that you don’t.”  

While the new rule is a victory for religious freedom and provides a certain amount of relief, it is important to acknowledge that the HHS mandate was not reversed — far from it. Indeed, the HHS itself notes that the regulation only impacts approximately 200 businesses, while millions of other employers remain duty-bound to comply. The rules, it reminds us, “will not affect over 99.9 percent of the 165 million women in the United States.”

The decision to expand the exemption, not reverse the mandate, is an indicator of just how variable the rule is — and how the scope of the mandate remains in the hands of whoever wields executive power. The HHS mandate remains the rule, with exceptions. And exceptions, as we know all too well from the past five years, can and do change.

Thanks to our culture’s alarming divergence from faith, concerns over religious liberty extend beyond the mandate to other issues threatening the practice of religion in the public square. For years the nation invoked the long-standing compromise on the Hyde amendment that maintained prohibition of federal funding for abortion. Last summer, the Democratic platform suddenly and inexplicably began calling for its repeal — meaning that, eventually, Catholics could be forced to fund abortion through their tax money. Physician-assisted suicide is slowly becoming the norm, and those with objections are being sidelined. Same-sex marriage is the law of the land, and those who oppose it are called bigots. Embryonic stem-cell research, which destroys human life, is now commonplace with few regulations. Like the frog boiling slowly in water, the expression and practice of faith is becoming steadily more endangered.

Like what you’re reading? Subscribe now in print or digital.

The bishops remind us of the need to be alert to potential dangers, and not complacent, when First Amendment rights are called into question.

“Religious freedom is a fundamental right for all, so when it is threatened for some, it is threatened for all,” they wrote. “With the encouragement of Pope Francis, we will remain ‘vigilant, precisely as good citizens, to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.’”

Editorial Board: Greg Willits, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor-in-chief; Don Clemmer, managing editor