May 12, 2017

Reflection / Sean Gallagher

More work needed to strengthen religious liberty and health care

Sean GallagherTwo noteworthy ceremonies happened in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on May 4 that focused on two fundamental human rights and their defense.

The protection of these rights proposed by President Donald J. Trump and other Republican leaders, however, left much to be desired and much work still to be done.

In the morning, President Trump met with leaders of diverse faith traditions to sign an executive order which expressed his administration’s support of religious liberty.

Later in the afternoon, he gathered with Republican members of the House of Representatives who earlier that day had passed the American Health Care Act by a narrow 217-213 vote. It is the first step of the Republican effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act passed and signed into law under President Barack Obama.

The Church has long taught that basic health care is due in justice to all people.

And for the Church, these two rights sometimes come into play with each other. Many Catholics across the country—lay, ordained and religious—publicly express their faith in caring for the sick in the Church’s many hospitals, health care networks, clinics that serve the poor and other charitable agencies.

The Little Sisters of the Poor do this by caring for the elderly poor in retirement facilities across the country, including the St. Augustine Home for the Aged in Indianapolis.

This ministry has been threatened for the past five years, however, by the Affordable Care Act’s abortifacient, sterilization and contraceptive mandate, which requires the Little Sisters and others like them, who in conscience oppose these medications and procedures, to pay for them in their employees’ health insurance plans.

If the Little Sisters refused to comply with the mandate, then the federal government would levy crushing fines against them, effectively bringing their ministry to the elderly poor to an end.

That is why the order has tirelessly fought the mandate in federal courts for five years. During that same time, the Obama administration was just as determined to force groups like the Little Sisters to comply with it.

Members of the order were present at the Rose Garden for the religious freedom ceremony, and President Trump invited them onto the stage, telling them, “I want you to know that your long ordeal will soon be over.”

The executive order directed the secretaries of various federal departments to “consider issuing amended regulations” tied to the mandate, which has arguably been the challenge to religious liberty from the federal government given the most attention in the past several years.

But it’s certainly not the only one.

In 2011, the Obama administration stopped issuing grants to a program in the U.S. bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) that cared for victims of human trafficking, even though the service given by the agency was shown to be excellent.

It was refused federal funding simply because it would not refer its clients for abortions or contraceptives. Instead, other secular agencies, who were unable to match MRS’ quality of service, but who did make such referrals, were given the grants.

President Trump’s executive order could have strengthened religious freedom much more broadly by directing that the federal government would not discriminate because of religious beliefs in issuing contracts and awarding grants. Nothing was said, however, about contracts or grants in the executive order.

Nor was anything said about keeping the federal government from discriminating against religious organizations and individuals because of their sincerely held beliefs about the nature of marriage and sexuality.

The ceremony held and the praise given to the Little Sisters of the Poor was certainly striking. It did not happen during the Obama administration, and would not in all likelihood have happened if Hilary Clinton had been elected president.

But the executive order signed during the ceremony did little of substance to protect religious liberty. This is especially true considering that permanent relief from the mandate for the Little Sisters of the Poor and other petitioners will likely come soon from federal appeals courts in response to the Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling on the cases. So Catholics across the country need to redouble their efforts in promoting this first of human freedoms.

And in the years to come, it may need to be protected so that the faithful can continue to care for the sick.

When House Republicans passed the American Health Care Act later that same day and celebrated their victory in the Rose Garden, I’m sure that many of them believed that their efforts would ultimately promote positive changes in the country’s health care system and the freedom of all people to receive the care they need.

Many people have respectfully disagreed with this assessment. Among them is Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Fla., chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

In a statement issued after the House vote, Bishop Dewane said that the bill “contains major defects” and, if not amended by the Senate, would endanger the health care of many low-income Americans.

The care of such people at the margins of our society is often taken up by Catholic institutions because of the desire of the faithful to continue Christ’s healing ministry among all people.

But the ability of the Church to continue this ministry in the future may very well depend on the continued promotion of religious liberty.

Catholics across central and southern Indiana and beyond need to make this effort a priority.

We are living in a time when a growing number of people in our society mistakenly understand religious liberty simply as a justification for bigotry, a misunderstanding that can lead to grave effects for all people of faith.

Much more will need to be done than a president signing an executive order short on specifics to turn this tide and strengthen the religious liberty of all Americans.

(Sean Gallagher is a reporter for The Criterion.)

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