- - Thursday, October 18, 2012

Despite 10 months of controversy — including a public clash between the White House and the U.S. Catholic bishops, countless rallies and protests across the country and the filing of dozens of federal lawsuits — many liberals and independents remain puzzled by the fight over the Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate contained in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. They don’t understand how conservatives can insist that the HHS mandate constitutes an unprecedented attack on religious freedom.

The mandate, announced by the Obama administration in January and finalized in February, requires nearly all employers to provide contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs through their health plans, regardless of any moral objections. This includes religious employers such as Catholic hospitals and universities, despite the fact that paying for such “services” contradicts settled Catholic doctrine.

Indeed, few Americans, whatever their political persuasion, understand or have much sympathy for the Catholic teaching that it is a sin to use contraception. In fact, it has come as news to many that the Catholic Church still teaches this. Sadly, few bother to ask why — or why it matters so much to the Catholic bishops that they insist they would rather shut down all those universities, charities and not-for-profit hospitals than comply with the HHS mandate.

This is exactly the question all Americans should be asking right now. Even if you don’t quite understand what the big deal is, it ought to trouble you that the HHS mandate is such a big deal to so many — and not just to Catholics. Several Protestant institutions also have filed suit against the HHS mandate, including Wheaton College and Houston Baptist University.

Nor is it just religious institutions bringing these suits. The craft-goods chain Hobby Lobby has filed a suit against the mandate, which founder and CEO David Green says would force the company to choose between “following the laws of the country that we love or maintaining the religious beliefs that have made our business successful.”

Even if you don’t understand exactly why Mr. Green is refusing as a matter of conscience to comply with the mandate, the fact that he’s willing to go so far as to file a federal lawsuit over it ought to give you pause.

It ought to trouble you that so many of your fellow Americans are crying foul over the issue of religious freedom. You also ought to be troubled by the almost surreal incongruities emerging from this conflict — such as the recent ruling by U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton that Tyndale House, a Christian publisher best known for its New Living Translation of the Bible, is not sufficiently religious in character to bring suit against the HHS mandate.

Take also the case of Triune Health Group, another private business suing the Obama administration over the mandate. Triune was recognized by Crain’s Chicago Business earlier this year as the area’s “Best Workplace for Women,” in large part because of its generous health plan. Triune founders Chris and Mary Anne Yep, who are devout Catholics, consider it their duty to take good care of their employees and accommodate the special concerns of women in the workplace.

Yet HHS mandate apologists would have us believe that the Yeps are somehow waging a “war on women.”

It’s time we all ask why employers like the Yeps and Mr. Green should be forced by the federal government to choose between their successful businesses and their religious faith, especially when that faith fosters a better workplace.

It’s time we all ask whether a policy like this that threatens to shut down Catholic charities along with a vast network of Catholic hospitals that disproportionately serve the most vulnerable Americans is really worth it.

It’s time we all ask why the Obama administration brought on this controversy, when there was no need to do so. Contraceptives already are widely, cheaply available in this country. Why force employers to pay for them through their health plans?

Why overturn decades of bipartisan consensus on freedom of conscience for a policy that is not needed and thrusts so many businesses and other institutions into a morally impossible situation?

Those are the questions we will be placing before our fellow Americans when tens of thousands of us gather in 130 cities coast to coast for the Stand Up for Religious Freedom Rally on Saturday.

Previous Stand Up rallies held in March and June drew attendance of more than 125,000 to more than 300 rally sites, making them some of the largest simultaneous protests in American history.

That so many are willing to take to the streets and oppose the HHS mandate ought to raise concerns for all who are committed to the American values of consensus building and religious tolerance.

You don’t have to agree with us about the morality of abortion-inducing drugs or about where to draw the line between government mandates and individual conscience, but you at least should be taking our concerns seriously. You also should be asking what impact your vote on Nov. 6 will have on putting this controversy behind us.

Eric Scheidler is the co-director of the national Stand Up for Religious Freedom Coalition and the executive director of the Pro-Life Action League.

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