byFaith | Spring 2012
By Alan Dowd
When the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) handed
down a mandate requiring religious employers to cover in their health insurance
plans contraceptive drugs, including drugs that cause abortion, Catholic institutions
initially took center stage. Cardinal Timothy Dolan explained that the HHS
mandate “would force practically all employers, including many religious institutions,
to pay for abortion-inducing drugs, sterilizations and contraception” and
warned that the government’s actions “struck at the heart of our fundamental
right to religious liberty.”
Indeed, this might-makes-right mandate impacts all people of
A Broken Body?
The president’s healthcare law, the Affordable Care Act, which was passed in 2010, required all
employers offering health insurance to include coverage for “preventive health
services.” HHS later defined this to include contraceptives and
abortion-inducing drugs like the morning-after pill (known as “abortifacients”).[i]
Many observers hoped the president would direct HHS to
provide a broad exemption for religious employers—and for good reason: In 2009,
the president spoke eloquently about the need to “honor
the conscience of those who disagree with abortion” and said he was open to “a
sensible conscience clause.”[ii]
But those hopes were dashed, as we now know. HHS initially
exempted only those organizations that employ people of the same faith, serve
people of the same faith and focus on religious teaching as their main mission.
Universities, primary and secondary schools, hospitals, nursing homes, food
kitchens and virtually all religious charitable organizations would not receive
a conscience-clause exemption from HHS, which explains the firestorm that erupted
Summing up what many thought about the HHS regulation, Dolan
concluded that “the exemption is too narrowly defined, because it does not
exempt most nonprofit religious employers…who rightly object to paying for
abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization and contraception.”
“This is first and foremost a matter of religious liberty
for all,” Dolan explained. “If the government can, for example, tell Catholics
that they cannot be in the insurance business today without violating their
religious convictions, where does it end?”
Dolan wasn’t the only religious leader to come to that
“I’m not a Catholic, but I stand in 100-percent solidarity
with my brothers and sisters to practice their belief against government
pressure,” wrote Pastor Rick Warren. “I’d rather go to jail than cave to a
government mandate that violates what God commands us to do,”[iii]he added, raising the prospect of a campaign of civil disobedience.
Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention called
the HHS mandate “reprehensible.”
Noting that “we are one Body,” David French of the American Center for Law and Justice asked his
fellow Protestants, “Are we so wedded to our distinctions from our Catholic
brothers and sisters that we’ll fail to rally to their aid, much less closely
examine our own apparent willingness to quietly cover and fund abortifacients?”
Many faiths and denominations have answered that question.
The National Association of Evangelicals, Southern
Baptist Convention, Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) and
the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America have all condemned the
Federal lawsuits have been
filed by numerous religious employers, including Geneva College (associated with the Reformed Presbyterian Church of
North America), Louisiana College (a Southern Baptist school), EWTN (a
Catholic cable TV network), Belmont Abbey College (a Catholic college in
North Carolina) and Colorado Christian University (a nondenominational school).
The Geneva College suit contends that the HHS
mandate will “coerce thousands of religious institutions and individuals to
engage in acts they consider sinful and immoral, in violation of their most
deeply held religious beliefs.”[v]
“As Christians we believe in the sanctity of human life,” Geneva College
president Ken Smith explains. “We believe that God knit us together in our
mother’s womb. We hold to the requirement of the Sixth Commandment—you shall
not murder—and believe that abortion is murder…The Health and Human Services
Preventive Services mandate coerces Geneva College to violate the
Sixth Commandment under threat of heavy fines and penalties.”[vi]
While noting the “breadth of support across many denominations,” including
Roman Catholic leaders, Smith expresses disappointment with Protestants who
refuse to recognize what the Bible says about the sanctity of life. “I’ve been
distressed to discover that many in the Body of Christ simply deny the
authoritative position of scripture on the issue of life,” he sighs.
Amid the controversy, some have cynically tried to change the
terms of debate from the real issue—government infringement upon religious
liberty—to a contrived issue—whether contraception is wrong or right. First and
foremost, the HHS mandate is not simply a matter of birth control. It also
enfolds abortion-inducing drugs. In fact, implicit in the HHS
preventive-services mandate is the notion that pregnancy—and hence, unborn
life—is some sort of illness that needs to be prevented. Second, even if this
was only about birth control, an issue which people of faith can and do
disagree on, it wouldn’t make the government’s means or ends any more
Reacting to the backlash, the president proposed a
compromise that would allow religious employers not to include contraceptives
and abortion-inducing drugs in their health-insurance plan as long as they make
sure their employees have insurance alternatives that provide contraceptives,
abortion-inducing drugs and the like. The White House explained that under the
compromise, “insurance companies will be
required to provide contraception coverage to these women free of charge.” In
addition, the White House established what it described as “a one-year
transition period for religious organizations while this policy is being
As Dolan put it, “In effect, the president is saying we have one year to figure
out how to violate our consciences.”
The Becket Fund for Religious
Liberty, a non-profit law firm, dismissed
the compromise as “false,” noting that “For-profit insurance companies aren’t
going to donate contraceptives and abortion drugs to employees; the employer
will pay for it one way or the other.”
Indeed, the health insurers retained by religiously affiliated employers would
still be providing these contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs, which could
be considered culpability in the commission of an immoral act. Moreover, the
notion that insurance companies—which, it pays to recall, are businesses—would
provide a good or service “free of charge” defies reason. Those charges will be
passed back to employers in the annual premiums they pay.
Religious employers are thus faced with four unpalatable
alternatives: ignore the cry of conscience; pay a fine; stop offering health
insurance; or engage in civil disobedience by defying the law.
Far from Home
To be sure, there are instances when the government has to intervene to prevent
a religious practice from harming someone—and rightly so—but the HHS mandate
turns the government’s responsibility-to-protect principle on its head: When it
comes to the morning-after pill and other abortion-inducing drugs, the
government is intervening to prevent a religious practice from protecting someone—namely an unborn child.
Moreover, the vast majority of the time, the federal
government finds a way to protect and preserve minority rights while ensuring majority
rule, especially in cases dealing with religious liberty. Mark Rienzi, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, points
to “religious exceptions for Quakers who did not
want to fight in the military…corrections workers who don’t want to be involved
in capital punishment…health-care personnel who do not want to be involved in
In other words, America’s government is not
supposed to tell those with religious beliefs how, where, when or whether to
practice those beliefs. We don’t have to worship on the same days or in the
same ways to recognize this truth.
Speaking of truth, this entire episode serves as a reminder
of two timeless truths.
First, “our citizenship is in heaven,” as Paul writes.[vii] We
may love our country, but our home is not here. Paul reminds us that we are
Christ’s ambassadors, which means we are living in a foreign land.
That was an easy concept to grasp for Paul and the early
Church, and for all people of faith who have been persecuted by governments. Moments like this—when our government trespasses into
the sphere of faith—are the exception rather than the rule in America. Still,
they are clarifying moments for people of faith. They remind us that our kingdom, as Jesus explained, is “not of this world.” Smith
puts it more matter-of-factly: “At Geneva College, we only have one Lord, and he
does not live in Washington,
Yet this is our diplomatic posting, to extend Paul’s ambassador metaphor. And
the good news for Christians who are blessed to
live in America is that we live
a land where people have the right to speak up, to challenge the
government and to follow the call of conscience into the public square. Indeed,
the Founders crafted a system whereby faith could impact and influence the
government—but not the other way around. Church and state are supposed to
coexist in America’s
public square. Most Americans don’t want religion to control government (like
the Islamic Republic of Iran), and they don’t want government to control
religion (like the People’s Republic of China).
The HHS mandate underscores for us that religious liberty is a blessing that
should never be taken for granted. If we believe in religious liberty, if we
care about it, we should stand up for it.
“When the state stands in opposition to Christ,” as Smith explains, “we must
call the state to account.”[ix] He believes
it’s important for Christians to pray, educate themselves on the HHS mandate
issue and “be actively engaged” by staying in contact with their legislators.
“The message should be: ‘This is unacceptable.’”
God’s Law or Man’s?
That leads to a second truth unearthed by the HHS mandate
mess: Civil disobedience is sometimes justified. But that presents a problem,
since disagreeing with the government and engaging in acts of civil
disobedience could be seen as violating some of scripture’s injunctions about
respecting government authority.
For instance, Peter directs
believers to “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority:
whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority,or to governors, who are sent by him to
punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.”[x] Paul’s letter to the Romans commands believers to “be subject to the governing authorities, for there is
no authority except that which God has established…Consequently, whoever rebels
against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted…Do you want
to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you
will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good.”[xi]
The obvious implication is that God allows earthly government
authorities to be in power for His purposes. It follows that believers should
not challenge those authorities. That explains why many people of
faith are wary of getting involved in politics, let alone challenging government
However, it may help to put Peter and Paul’s injunctions
into some context.
First, it’s quite possible
that Paul was thinking tactically. In other words, openly rebelling against
government authority would have given Rome
reason to crack down on the fragile, new faith Paul was spreading. By advising
the rank-and-file to maintain a low profile, perhaps Paul was hoping Christianity
could lay down deep roots and spread peacefully—beneath Rome’s gaze. Why else would he advise
Timothy to pray “for kings and all those in
authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives”?[xii]
More importantly, Peter tells believers to “do right,” and Paul’s advice
is to “do what is right.” So, if some
authority requires a believer to do something wrong—like, say, keeping silent
about the Gospel or renouncing Christ or breaking one of the commandments by
being complicit in the taking of innocent life—neither Peter nor Paul would
instruct that believer to “do what is right” according to a man-made law but
wrong according to God’s. That, it seems, would have been self-evident to
Indeed, when ordered by the Sanhedrin not to teach about
Jesus, Peter boldly replied, “We must obey God rather than men.” In fact, Peter
“never stopped teaching and
proclaiming the good news.”[xiii]
Likewise, Paul was jailed and
flogged for “advocating customs unlawful for…Romans to accept or practice.”[xiv]Because of his unflinching commitment to the Word, he triggered riots and was
imprisoned by Roman authorities.[xv]And yet Paul was encouraged in a vision by Jesus, who told him, “Do not be
afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent.”[xvi]
In short, Peter and Paul engaged in a kind of civil
disobedience—and the Lord approved of it.
That should come as no surprise. After all, the Bible is full of courageous
acts of civil disobedience approved by God.
Pharaoh ordered the midwives Shiphrah and Puah to
kill newborn Hebrew boys at birth. “If you see
that the baby is a boy,” he coldly commanded, “kill him.” But they
explicitly disobeyed Pharaoh’s orders. They even lied about, and yet God rewarded their act of civil disobedience.[xvii]
We sometimes forget
that Moses’ interaction with Pharaoh was primarily about religious liberty.
Speaking as God’s ambassador, Moses declared, “Let my people go so that they
may hold a festival to me in the desert.” Pharaoh refused, and so Moses went
far beyond civil disobedience. In fact, he led a rebellion against Pharaoh.
The Book of Esther tells us that King Xerxes
commanded his subjects to bow down before Haman, but “Mordecai would not kneel
down or pay him honor.” That act of civil disobedience set in motion the events
that followed: the order to kill all of Mordecai’s people, Esther’s crisis of
conscience, Mordecai’s intercession, and Esther’s own courageous act of civil
disobedience. It was courageous because, as Esther explained, “for any man or
woman who approaches the inner court without being summoned, the king has but
one law: that he or she be put to death.” Esther went anyway, and because she
did, God’s people were spared.
As any kid who has gone to Sunday school can
report, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were
tossed into a furnace for refusing to bow down to a golden image of King
Nebuchadnezzar. Likewise, when King Darius banned the people from praying to
anyone except him, Daniel defied the order and prayed to the Living God.
Most important of all, when Jesus instructed the disciples to
“give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,”[xviii]he was talking about more than taxes. He was also providing guidance on what
matters to God: Give to the government what is the government’s, but reserve
for God what matters most—your heart, your soul, your conscience. Don’t let the
government take hold of those precious parts of you. And don’t be surprised if drawing
that line gets the government’s attention. “On account of me,” Jesus
proclaimed, “you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them.”[xix]
That’s what Peter and Paul did—and that’s what Cardinal
Dolan, Geneva College and many other believers are
Read the sidebar articles to this piece: A Criminal Law and Following a Higher Law.
[i] Statement by U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, January 20, 2012, http://www.hhs.gov/news/press/2012pres/01/20120120a.html
[ii] Address at the University of Notre
Dame, May 17, 2009.
[iii] Billy Hallowell, “Pastor Rick Warren: ‘Id got to jail
rather than cave’ to contraceptive mandate,” theblaze.com, February 9, 2012.
[v] Rich Lord, “GenevaCollege sues over
insurance for morning-after drugs,” Pittsburgh Post Gazette, February 21, 2012.
[vi] Ken Smith remarks, February 21, 2012.
[vii] Philippians 3:20
[viii]GenevaCollege press release,
February 21, 2012.
[ix] Ken Smith remarks, February 21, 2012.
[xi] Romans 13:1-3
[xii]I Timothy 2:2
[xiii] Acts 5
[xv]Acts 19 and
[xvii] Exodus 1
[xviii] Matthew 22
[xix] Mark 13:9