CINCINNATI (CNS) — A Cincinnati archdiocesan official called it an “exciting breakthrough” that mainline Protestant churches in Ohio have joined with the Catholic Church in objecting to the federal contraceptive mandate based on religious freedom concerns.
The Ohio Council of Churches, which represents 18 denominations, adopted a statement May 29 saying that with the mandate of the Affordable Care Act, the government is defining what constitutes a religious belief and who has a right to that belief.
“This is an exciting breakthrough. To have mainline Protestant churches in solidarity with Catholics on religious freedom sends a clear and powerful message, said Tony Stieritz, director of the Catholic Social Action office of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
In its statement, the council said that even the most recent proposal to implement the mandate “still narrowly applies the exemption to only ‘churches, their integrated auxiliaries, and conventions or associations of churches, as well as to the exclusively religious activities of any religious order,'” and does not include religious charities, hospitals and universities.
“According to the mandate, therefore, the government has now defined that these institutions are not religious enough to follow their own religious teachings in certain circumstances,” the council statement said. “This mandate sets a concerning precedent for any religious institution which may find itself in a position of having values that, within reason, challenge that of the state.”
The Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate requires most employers, including religious employers, provide coverage of contraceptives, sterilization and some abortion-inducing drugs free of charge, even if the employer is morally opposed to such services. It does not include a conscience clause for employers who object to providing such coverage.
When it was first issued, the HHS mandate included a narrow exemption applying only to those religious institutions that seek to inculcate their religious values and primarily employ and serve people of their own faith. On Feb. 1 the federal government issued new proposed rules that exempt organizations that are considered nonprofits under specific sections of the Internal Revenue Code.
The proposed rules are to become effective Aug. 1.
Stieritz explained that Catholics began working with the Ohio Council of Churches more than a year ago.
“The first draft was rejected because we still needed a dialogue on the core principle involved,” he told The Catholic Telegraph, newspaper of the Cincinnati Archdiocese.
He said the effort to get council involved was restarted last October. This time, he explained, there was a thorough vetting of the religious liberty principle involved in the opposition to the HHS mandate.
The council statement discusses the core principle of religious liberty, cites its objections to allowing government define who qualifies as a religious organization with rights of conscience, and concludes with two goals.
The first goal is to “actively to pursue changes that would broaden the religious exemption within the current mandate.” The other calls for legislation that would implement “safeguards in legislation on social issues that will respect and protect religious liberty and the rights of conscience.”
“They stood with us,” Stieritz said of the council’s members.
Trosley is on the staff of The Catholic Telegraph, newspaper of the Cincinnati Archdiocese.