August 16, 2012

Now is the time to act on the HHS mandate

By Bishop James D. Conley *

By Bishop James D. Conley *

In 1620, as many of us know, the Mayflower pilgrims came to the Americas to practice their religion freely and to seek a brighter future.

Shortly thereafter, beginning in the 1630s, recently arrived British and Irish Catholics flocked to the colony of Maryland for much the same reason, to practice their religion freely.

By the 1670s, European Jews were moving to Charleston, S.C., where the state constitution guaranteed religious liberty for “Jews, heathens, and dissenters.”

In recent years, nearly 40,000 people have annually applied for asylum in the United States, many seeking protection from religious persecution.

The United States has a long and proud history as a safe haven for religious liberty. I pray that this country will continue that noble history. But earlier this month, religious liberty in the United States suffered a serious blow.

On Aug. 1, the so-called HHS contraceptive mandate took affect for most employers in the United States. Although the mandate does not yet affect Catholic churches or institutions due to a one-year grace period, Catholic business owners are now required to provide contraception, sterilization, and quite possibly abortion coverage in their employee insurance plans. Neither religious obligation nor the dictates of conscience are legally respected by this policy.

In anticipation of the mandate, many Catholic business owners have asked me how they should respond to the new law. Some have expressed concern about the penalties imposed upon their business and employees for violating the law, which could easily amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

Individual Catholics, too, have asked whether they can morally participate in insurance programs that now offer contraception and sterilization.

This week, the ethicists of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, led by Dr. John Haas, have outlined four possible responses to the HHS mandate:

The first is to comply and assent willingly to the law. Dr. Haas rightly explains that Catholics have an obligation to oppose unjust laws. Merely assenting to a law that mitigates religious freedom and supports the evil of contraception runs counter to Catholic moral teaching. This response is morally unacceptable and constitutes “formal cooperation” in sin.

The second and third options are to either provide morally acceptable insurance coverage or to drop all insurance coverage for their employees. Both of these options would leave employers subject to considerable fines by the government, fines that could easily run close to 1 million dollars annually, depending on the number of employees in the business. Additionally, in justice, providing no coverage would require an increase in salary to employees to compensate for the added costs. Although these options are morally licit, they would be impractical. The potential financial harm would put many livelihoods in total jeopardy.

The fourth option, Haas suggests, is for employers to comply temporarily, and under protest, while using every legal means of recourse against these unjust laws. This option, “compliance under duress,” would not constitute immoral compliance with law—but real opposition to the HHS mandate must be registered. In 2014, when health care law changes again to provide health care exchanges, employers would need to drop morally objectionable coverage.

Unless Catholics continue to fight in the courtroom, in the voting booth, and on our knees in prayer, religious liberty in the United States will quickly erode and fade into the annals of our history. Now is the time to protect the legacy that began the American experiment. Now is the time to bring religious freedom to the forefront of the American legal system once more.

To read Dr. Haas’ entire ethical reflection on the responses to the HHS mandate go to:


Reprinted with permission from the Denver Catholic Register.

The Most Rev. James D. Conley served as the auxiliary Bishop for the Denver Archdiocese from April of 2008 until November of 2012, and during this time also served as Apostolic Administrator for Denver from September 2011 until July 2012. Bishop Conley is currently the Bishop of the Lincoln diocese.


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