|You’re tired of hearing about Hobby Lobby and the Supreme Court, tired of all the talk of fines and health-care plans and reproductive rights, tired of being bombarded with words spoken in anger from both sides of the aisle. You want to put your fingers in your ears, switch the channel, and wait for the ruling and the rest of it to just go away.
But even though you are tired, even though you’ve grown weary of having the same discussions about the same points, Hobby Lobby and fines and health-care plans still matter. They matter because your country – the United States of America – was founded on the principle that you were born with certain rights: the rights to seek and follow truth, to live according to your beliefs, to worship freely.
And no one, not even the government, gets to tell you how to do that.
Today, our federal government threatens that right, consistently refusing to protect religious liberty as our Constitution and the laws of nature demand. In the dozens of cases against the Health and Human Services contraceptive mandate, the government has started dictating the boundaries of religious beliefs, and to pick and choose which beliefs – and which individuals – deserve religious liberty protection.
The contraceptive mandate, part of the Affordable Care Act, requires employers to provide a full range of 20 FDA-approved contraceptive devices, drugs and services in their health-care plans. These include “emergency contraceptives” with the ability to prevent implantation of an embryo – in other words, the ability to end a human life. Catholics, Lutherans, and many other Americans find these drugs morally reprehensible. Yet, though objections to the mandate are strong and numerous – with over 90 lawsuits filed so far – the government has simply swept them aside.
The mandate’s provisions allow for very narrow exemptions for houses of worship. Exemptions do not extend even to affiliates of those houses of worship; for example, a Catholic order of nuns, operating homes for the elderly poor, is not exempt. Nor are Christian colleges, nor are thousands of other religious non-profit organizations, which serve the public good.
In the case of the non-profits, the government has come up with an empty “accommodation” that would force organizations to sign HHS forms directing third-party administrators to provide the drugs that the organizations cannot. As one plaintiff, the Little Sisters of the Poor, explained, these forms are nothing more than permission slips. The Little Sisters cannot direct someone else to act immorally, just as they cannot act immorally themselves. The government has branded this particular belief meaningless.
Neither the exemption nor the false “accommodation” extends to individuals who run their own businesses, like David and Barbara Green, owners of Hobby Lobby. The Greens morally oppose providing drugs that can prevent implantation and have filed suit against HHS, represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. In the Greens’ case, the government claims that moral convictions must be abandoned at the door of the workplace. The Greens may not run their own companies according to their consciences. Or, in return for staying true to their convictions, they will be forced to pay crushing fines.
The government’s distinctions under the mandate don’t make sense. The government does not get to reduce God and the way in which He works down to what happens only in church or worship. By its definition, religious liberty stipulates that a church – not the government – must be permitted to form its own definition and its own boundaries.
Moreover, God uses each of us in our vocations to serve those around us. This call to serve others and live according to our beliefs extends beyond our houses of worship, into our homes, our communities, and our work. To prevent individuals from following the dictates of their consciences is an abuse of power and a gross infringement on human dignity.
As the leader of a Christian church body, I strongly object to the government’s approach of picking and choosing whose beliefs merit consideration. Now, according to the government, Catholic nuns must authorize others to give out free contraceptives, and evangelical Christians must abandon their most deeply held convictions in the operations of their own businesses. What group, and what belief, will next be under attack?
Friends, we may be weary. We may be tired. But we must stand together to protect our God-given right to religious liberty. This mandate threatens not only those whose religions specifically compel them to oppose it, but all Americans. We cannot allow our government to define the content of our beliefs or the degree of their significance.
The Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison is the current and 13th president of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod.