"What's at stake are not Democratic values or Republican values, but American values," President Obama said last week in his State of the Union address. "We have to reclaim them," he continued. If only he practiced what he preached. Just four days earlier, he made a mockery of one of America's most sacred constitutional principles, the right of every individual to freedom of religious belief and practice without interference from government. On Jan. 20, Kathleen Sebelius, Obama's secretary of health and human services, issued new regulations under Obamacare that require employers, including religiously affiliated organizations like hospitals and churches, to include coverage of contraception and abortifacients like the morning-after pill, in their employee health insurance plans.
The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States provides that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." It's not clear which part of "no law" Obama and Sebelius missed, but that is exactly what the new HHS regulation does because it forces millions of American Catholics and evangelical Protestants who object to abortion to support practices that violate their most deeply held religious beliefs.
When the Obama administration announced last summer that the Obamacare mandate would likely include this coverage requirement, a number of religious organizations, including the Catholic Church, requested exemptions. HHS granted an exemption in the regulation announced last week, but it is laughably narrow and brief. Churches do not have to provide the coverage to their clergy, but they must for all other church employees. The regulation thus makes all members of the church contribute to the provision of something alien to their religious faith and practice. Sebelius also granted them an extra year to come into compliance.
"To force American citizens to choose between violating their consciences and forgoing their health care is literally unconscionable," said Archbishop of New York Timothy Dolan. "It is as much an attack on access to health care as on religious freedom. Historically, this represents a challenge and a compromise of our religious liberty. ... In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences." Dolan was among a small group of religious leaders Obama called in advance to notify them of his decision to back the Sebelius regulation.
America's devotion to religious freedom has been so strong for so long that the country recognizes the primacy of religious principle even in areas like military service, with conscientious objector status for Quakers, and in civic rites such as saying the Pledge of Allegiance, from which Jehovah's Witnesses are exempted. No wonder the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has called the regulation "an unprecedented attack on religious liberty" because it forces individuals and institutions "to sell, broker, or purchase 'services' to which they have a moral or religious objection."
Americans have a wide divergence of opinion on issues like abortion, but virtually everybody agrees that no man or woman should be forced to violate his or her religious beliefs by supporting practices he or she finds objectionable. This is a civil liberties issue that was resolved centuries ago by the First Amendment.