- - Wednesday, May 7, 2014

When the Roman Empire persecuted the early Christians, they tried to force them to do what seems like a small, simple act: Take a pinch of incense, throw it on the fire, and say “Caesar is Lord.” The Christians objected, even at the cost of their lives, because this small act was actually a big betrayal of their only Lord, Jesus.

History is repeating itself now in America.

The first oral arguments at the appellate level on the merits of a case for religious nonprofit groups against the Health and Human Services contraception mandate are being presented Thursday in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Just as the recent Hobby Lobby case was heard at the Supreme Court, representing the arguments of businesses against the mandate, so now the case of Priests for Life vs. Department of Health and Human Services will have its day in court for religious nonprofit groups. Among the plaintiffs in this case is Alveda King, niece of Martin Luther King Jr.

The mandate on contraception, abortifacient drugs and sterilization services is applied differently to businesses, to churches, and to religious nonprofit entities.

The government recognizes churches, first of all, as exempt from the mandate.

In the case of businesses such as Hobby Lobby, the government is arguing as a threshold issue that the business, as a corporation, does not have rights of religious freedom.

In the case of religious nonprofit organizations such as Priests for Life, the government recognizes that they do have rights of religious freedom, but is claiming that those rights have been protected by the “accommodation” the government offered in regard to the mandate. In our suit, we claim the accommodation is still a violation of our faith.

This “accommodation” requires, among other things, that we fill out a form stating that we object to the mandate and then provide a copy of this form to our insurance carrier, which must then provide the objectionable contraceptive coverage to our employees. If Priests for Life refuses to authorize such coverage — and we do refuse — we will face crippling fines.

The reason this accommodation is objectionable is that it still directly involves our organization in the government’s plan to expand free access to these objectionable “services.” By signing the form, we are, in fact, authorizing and cooperating in the process by which our employees end up getting coverage for practices and products the Catholic Church, and our ministry, consider immoral.

It has nothing to do with who is paying for these “services” or even whether any employee ends up using them.

It has to do with the fact that our organization would become the necessary “gateway” to the immoral coverage. That is contrary not only to the requirements of Christian morality, but to the very purpose and mission for which our organization was established.

In relation to the Hobby Lobby case, the Supreme Court theoretically could rule that for-profit corporations do have religious freedom rights just like the nonprofit corporations and that those rights are violated by the mandate. However, that could still leave in place the same problem that the nonprofit corporations face now, namely, being offered the same “accommodation” that is really not an accommodation at all. That is why it is equally important for the religious groups like Priests for Life to win their lawsuits.

The Supreme Court will eventually need to deal with the issue facing the religious groups. The reason that Hobby Lobby got there first is that the mandate went into effect for the businesses a year before it went into effect for the religious nonprofits like Priests for Life. As the fourth group to challenge the mandate back in February of 2012, we were told, as were many similar groups, that it was too early for a ruling on the merits, because more changes were coming from the administration. The changes in the mandate ultimately proved unacceptable to us, and Priests for Life and many others re-filed their lawsuits. Only now are these cases beginning to be heard at the appellate level.

President Obama understands what is going on here. When asked in a Feb. 2 interview by Bill O’Reilly about the objections of religious groups to the mandate, the president stated, “Here’s the way this thing works. All they have to do is sign a form saying they don’t — they are a religious institution — and — and they get what they want. The problem is they don’t want to sign the form — because they think that that somehow makes them complicit.”

Exactly right. That’s not only what we and the other religious plaintiffs think — that’s precisely what our religion teaches. The freedom to follow that teaching is precisely what the law and the courts need to respect.

Father Frank Pavone is national director of Priests for Life.

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