In the blink of an eye

It was during the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 that Secretary of State Dean Rusk famously said of the Soviet-U.S. confrontation, “We were eyeball to eyeball, and the other fellow just blinked.” 

Recently, there were those wondering if the Obama administration had just blinked. 

A year-long church-state confrontation has centered on controversial regulations from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The regulations pitted the administration’s agenda of free contraception, sterilization and abortion-related services against the religious freedom of Catholic and other faith-based institutions to refuse to provide, facilitate or pay for them. 

The HHS mandate has generated more than 40 lawsuits from Church-related entities, including Our Sunday Visitor and the Diocese of Pittsburgh, where I live. 

A few weeks back, the Obama administration announced in an 80-page document proposed adjustments to the rule that it said satisfied the religious freedom concerns. 

It didn’t. 

The whole thing is a sheer affront to the First Amendment. The federal government is now reissuing, rewriting and revising all kinds of arcane regulations that take 80 pages to outline. 

The core issue at stake is the constitutionality of the government forcing on religious institutions actions that violate their fundamental beliefs. 

The Obama administration believes it has a right to do so. Faith-based entities respond that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1994 and the Constitution prevent the government from forcing faith-based entities to act against their beliefs. 

Writers such as Catholic E. J. Dionne of The Washington Post believe the newly proposed revisions in the mandate present a victory for faith-based entities. He must not have gotten past the administration’s talking points that proclaimed it had abandoned a narrowly defined religious exemption to the mandate it had insisted on a year earlier. 

That original exemption had defined faith-based entities as only those that employed and served primarily its own members and whose purpose was education in the faith of its own members. It meant that faith-based social service agencies such as Catholic Charities, nursing homes, hospitals and universities were not exempt. 

The proposed revised regulations — allegedly — drop that definition. But here’s what happens when the specifics of the new regulations are reviewed in depth and it’s discovered what any Catholic charity or faith-based organization has to prove to be exempt: it comes out that the new proposal might actually shrink the number of exempt entities as compared with the original proposal. 

Just for an example: A Catholic organization that engages in its own fundraising and doesn’t get at least half of its operational budget from direct subsidies by the diocese in which it operates may be subject to the mandate. In many dioceses, that would eliminate private Catholic high schools and Catholic charitable and medical facilities, just as before. 

The goal of the HHS mandate — to provide all employees of Catholic entities free access to contraceptive services through the Church — remains central to the proposed regulations. The fact that the newly proposed regulations are supported by Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union and NARAL Pro-Choice America tells all that we need to know about the level of protection Catholic entities can expect. 

I don’t think the Obama administration blinked. I think it poked the Church in the eye once again. 

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.

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