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Thursday, February 16, 2012

I Can't Believe It, but Here We Are

I am deeply concerned about the new rule coming down from the Department of Health and Human Services. As you may be aware, a rule then considered to be final was announced January 20 that requires health insurance plans to cover certain contraceptive services without charging a copay, co-insurance, or deductible. Houses of worship who object to such services on the basis of conscience were exempted from this rule, though they would be required to inform employees of free outlets at which they might receive these services. Other religious organizations were not exempted from the rule and would be required to provide insurance that covered these contraceptive services. (See the original HHS statement here.) A recent “compromise” offered by the administration on February 10 would have the insurance company inform the insured of the availability of these services directly instead of through the employer, but the services are the same, and the employer still has to purchase the insurance that pays for them.

The services requiring coverage include contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs. All three of these directly violate the ethical teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. Though many professing Catholics in America disagree with their church’s teaching about these, the institution itself and many of the faithful hold a clear, long-standing, well-attested ethical position. For my part, I do not agree with Catholic teaching that contraception and sterilization are clear-cut sins and violations of God’s commands, though I do find Catholic argumentation on these subjects thoughtful and not to be easily dismissed. I and very many evangelical Protestants, however, do agree with the Catholic Church that the so-called “morning after” pill (at least some versions of which can be taken within five days of conception), takes an innocent human life when it destroys a fertilized egg, a live human embryo. I do believe that even if there is no malicious intent on the part of the person taking the pill, the moral result is murder or at least manslaughter.

However, believe it or not, the subsidy of that act is not the main reason that I am so distressed by HHS’s rule. What perplexes me the most is the gross violation of religious liberty it constitutes. Understand what is happening here. For the first time I can remember in my life, the federal government is requiring that explicitly religious organizations provide people with the means to commit acts that violate the institutions’ beliefs and consciences. If they don’t, they will suffer consequences, perhaps including fines, shutting down the organization, and maybe even jail time for living according to their religious beliefs. I’m pretty sure that fits the definition of persecution.

For years I have heard some individuals make wild claims about the government prosecuting a war on Christians when this or that legislation is proposed or suit is litigated. Generally I have shared some concerns but have found nearly all specific allegations of “persecution” to be irresponsibly overstated, sometimes with outright lies. This time the danger is not overstated, and in fact Christians may find ourselves caught in a boy-that-cried-wolf situation with no one to listen to us anymore.

Imagine the pictures on the news when a Catholic bishop in full regalia walks handcuffed into jail. Imagine the interviews with the homeless who used to sleep in the shelter that has now closed because it can’t afford the fines for noncompliance levied against it. Imagine all this happening in the United States of America, the birthplace of the First Amendment.

Now imagine a few years later, after the government has enforced its rule and eliminated those organizations that wouldn’t yield their beliefs. Imagine after a complacent American citizenry—including religious persons that have no moral objection to contraception, sterilization, or abortifacients—treated the whole matter as No Big Deal. Then, once the government has proven that it can impose its will on some religious organizations, what will it do to the houses of worship that weren’t infringed upon the first time? And what other religious beliefs will it trample down once the precedent has been set and the wall restraining the government has been breached?

None of this will harm the kingdom of God in the least. It will not change the eternal good news about Jesus Christ. It will not destroy the church, and it will not change the end of the story of this world. But it will impoverish America, pervert one of her greatest ideals, and bring shame upon this beacon of liberty. Additionally, it will open a door for true persecution of Christian believers. Quite possibly, the state won’t walk through that door for a long time, but it will be there.

If you don’t mind suffering at the government’s hands for your religious beliefs, or if you don’t mind relinquishing them when the pressure comes, and if you don’t mind the persecution of others, then you have little to be concerned about by this HHS rule. But if you do mind these things, whatever your religious beliefs (or lack thereof), let me suggest that you sign a petition protesting this rule to be delivered to the White House on March 1. In addition, you may be interested in this letter to the President signed by a large number of intellectuals from a variety of religions and Christian traditions.

Please sign the petition, write the President, and talk this up. We must not stay silent.

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