Since the Obamacare anti-conscience mandate was proposed in August, the Obama Administration has come under intense scrutiny for the rule’s violation of religious liberty. In the wake of the final rule’s publication in the Federal Register yesterday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a full committee hearing yesterday to further investigate those claims, highlighting the law’s serious threat to freedom.
Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut, who serves as chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty, began the panel testimony by telling a story, “The Parable of the Kosher Deli.” Bishop Lori’s parable drew a parallel between the mandate coercing many religious employers to pay for abortion-inducing drugs and contraceptives against their beliefs and a hypothetical situation of a government forcing all Jewish delis to serve pork sandwiches. The latter situation is clearly an absurd violation of religious freedom, and Bishop Lori’s story ended with the government rescinding the requirement to serve certain meat products and restoring Jewish deli owners’ liberty.
The bishop concluded:
The question before the United States government—right now—is whether the story of our own Church institutions that serve the public, and that are threatened by the…mandate, will end happily too. Will our nation continue to be one committed to religious liberty and diversity? We urge, in the strongest possible terms, that the answer must be yes. We urge you, in the strongest possible terms, to answer the same way.
Dr. C. Ben Mitchell, a professor at Union University and ordained Southern Baptist minister, reminded the committee that the mandate threatens the conscience rights of people from many faith traditions:
The policy is an unconscionable intrusion by the state into the consciences of American citizens. Contrary to portrayals in some of the popular media, this is not only a Catholic issue. All people of faith— and even those who claim no faith—have a stake in whether or not the government can violate the consciences of its citizenry. Religious liberty and the freedom to obey one’s conscience is also not just a Baptist issue. It is an American issue that is enshrined in our founding documents.
Of deep concern to many at yesterday’s hearing was the mandate’s offensively narrow religious exemption that applies only to formal houses of worship and excludes hospitals, schools, and social service organizations. Panelists expressed concern over the insinuation that, under such a policy, religious employers forfeit their right to religious liberty simply because they care for others outside the walls of a church or synagogue.
Reverend Dr. Matthew Harrison, president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, commented:
[W]e believe and teach that freedom of religion extends beyond mere houses of worship.… We add our voice to the long list of those who have championed their God-given right to freely exercise their religious beliefs according to the dictates of their faith, and to provide compassionate care and clear Christian witness to society’s most vulnerable, without government encroachment.
The mandate’s narrow religious exemption and seeming disregard for the important role faith plays in spurring people to care for their communities outside of church walls could signal serious trouble for religious liberty more generally. Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, who teaches at Yeshiva University, explained:
In refusing to extend religious liberty beyond the parameters of what the administration chooses to deem religious conduct, the administration denies people of faith the ability to define their religious activity. Therefore, not only does the new regulation threaten religious liberty in the narrow sense, in requiring Catholic communities to violate their religious tenets, but also the administration impedes religious liberty by unilaterally redefining what it means to be religious.
Many panelists at yesterday’s hearing commented on the broader implications of the mandate’s assault on all Americans’ constitutional liberties. Dr. Craig Mitchell, professor of Christian Ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, stated:
[T]his rule is wrong not just for religious conservatives, it is wrong for all Americans, because it takes away the freedom of the citizens while emboldening the federal government to do whatever it wants. It is wrong because it violates the constitution. It is wrong because it violates religious liberty. It is wrong because it forces people to violate their consciences.… This ruling is just plain wrong for America.
Policymakers should recognize that the anti-conscience mandate’s violation of conscience rights is just the first taste of Obamacare’s unprecedented federal overreach and threat to personal liberty. Testimony at yesterday’s hearing is just one more reminder that defending religious freedom specifically and individual liberty generally demands repeal of Obamacare.