Saturday, February 11, 2012

Picking up the gauntlet

The recent edict by the Health and Human Services Department regarding the effects of the health care law on religious organizations should be of great concern to all Christians.  It narrowly interprets which religious institutions can avoid having to include services such as sterilization, contraceptives and abortion causing drugs at no cost in the health care plans offered to their employees.  Only those religious institutions (i.e. churches) whose purpose is to inculcate their moral values to their own members and primarily only employ and serve their members can quality for an exemption to the law.  The schools, hospitals and social programs run by religious organizations are not exempt and must follow the ruling.  While its provisions are most onerous to and have the greatest impact on Catholic churches and institutions who prohibit such practices in their moral teaching, the mandate has the great potential of negatively impacting all Christian organizations, Catholic and Protestant who serve the public.  This has dire consequences particularly on those who minister to others though social programs, such as food and clothing banks, homeless shelters, tutoring or counseling programs, etc. and who desire to avoid providing such health care benefits as a matter or conscience.  In effect, any church which has any type of outreach program which employs people for that purpose could come under the hegemony of the federal health care law and be forced to either drop their health care plans and pay hefty fines to the government, or provide for these health care services.  The administration’s opposition to the recent Supreme Court decision which guaranteed that church organizations alone can decide whom to hire and fire raises further questions as to how the government will further interpret the HHS ruling.  This matter is of grave concern since at its heart, Christianity is concerned with evangelism and missions. The Benedictine Belmont Abbey College has already indicated that it may close its doors rather than comply with the law if it doesn’t receive a waiver.  Several religious adoption agencies have closed their doors rather than adopt to same sex couples.   How many religious hospitals and schools will follow suit?  It has been noted that under these narrow guidelines for exemptions not even the ministry of Jesus and his disciples would qualify for an exemption of the law.
The administration’s decision to deny the constitutional rights of deeply held convictions and religious liberty requires one of two responses.  We can acquiesce to the new mandate, deciding to do nothing.  But if we do so, we must ask ourselves the disturbing questions “What’s next?  Where do I draw the line, if not here?”  For it is likely that we will soon face another challenge to our faith.  Or we can join those who for reasons of conscience are fighting the effects of the edict, taking a firm stand of solidarity with them in their efforts to overturn this attack upon religious institutions.  The Lutheran theologian Martin Niemöller, reflecting on the Nazi purging of various groups within Germany spoke the following:

First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out -- 
Because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out -- 
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out -- 
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics, and I did not speak out –
Because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

The gauntlet has been thrown down.  Who will pick it up?