Commentary

Priests for Life Challenges Obama Admin’s Conscience Violating HHS Mandate in Supreme Court

Fr. Frank Pavone
By Fr. Frank Pavone | February 17, 2016 | 3:06 PM EST

Demonstrators protest the Obama Administration's HHS mandate that would obligate Catholic organizations to provide contraceptive services to their employees. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Imagine that a pastor is preaching to his congregation on a Sunday morning, giving an impassioned sermon on the meaning of a Bible passage.  Suddenly, the doors at the back of the church burst open.  A federal bureaucrat runs down the aisle and shouts, “Stop preaching!  You’ve got it all wrong!  That’s not what your religion teaches!”

Unfortunately, that hypothetical federal regulator represents the very real position of the Obama administration today.  With its imposition of the HHS mandate – soon to be heard by the Supreme Court – the government is actually trying to tell clergy and lay believers what God requires of them.

And the Obama administration isn’t just stopping at trying to make illegal deeply held beliefs held sacred by scores of generations.  It wants to penalize religious charities, hospitals, and schools out of existence if we don’t adopt this Gospel According to the Department of Health and Human Services.

We will not comply.

For more than four years, the Obama administration has been trying to force Priests for Life and hundreds of other religiously based entities to be complicit in the provision of drugs, devices, and procedures that our faith and conscience inform us are evil.  Some of these "services" take human life by causing early abortions.

What many will find confusing about the case is that the administration claims that it is honoring our right of conscience by giving us a way out of obeying its mandate by an accommodation that involves simply filling out a form or writing a letter.

But the crux of the matter is that the "accommodation" it offers still violates our faith and conscience. According to our religion, the accommodation still makes us complicit in the provision of these "services," which our employees would still receive precisely because they are our employees. We would still be involved. No matter how many times we explain this to the administration, though, its response remains the same – "No, it doesn't violate your faith, and you’re being ridiculous to think that it does."

In short, the Obama administration is telling us which of our beliefs are valid and which aren't, which of our beliefs make sense and which don't, which of our beliefs pass their test and which don’t, and which of our beliefs we should be punished for following and which we shouldn't.

And that violates federal law.

We at Priests for Life and the hundreds of other plaintiffs suing the government are left with no other choice than to respectfully and resolutely oppose what the government is asking us to do. 

Judge Janice Rogers Brown, a member of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, has written eloquently on the point at hand.  The D.C. Circuit, led by Obama appointees, last year upheld the administration’s argument.  Judge Brown dissented, holding that the HHS mandate violates the right to religious liberty protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Judge Brown condemned the D.C. Circuit’s upholding of the administration’s position, writing, “… this Court is neither qualified nor authorized to so scrutinize any religious belief.  The panel trespassed into an area of inquiry Supreme Court precedent forecloses.”  Further, she admonished, any such trespass is not justified by “good intentions.”

"After all … the government’s motivations—no matter how benevolent—are irrelevant; we ask only whether the government’s action operates to place“substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and to violate his beliefs.”

Judge Brown then noted that the Circuit Court, in trying to justify the administration’s actions, was answering questions it shouldn’t be asking in the first place.

"In declaring that—contrary to Catholic Plaintiffs’contentions—it would be consistent with the teaching of the Catholic Church for Plaintiffs to comply with the regulations the panel exceeded both the ‘judicial function and [the] judicial competence.’ What amounts to ‘facilitating immoral conduct,’ ‘scandal,’ and ‘material’ or ‘impermissible cooperation with evil,’ are inherently theological questions which objective legal analysis cannot resolve and which ‘federal courts have no business addressing.’”

Finally, reminding us that the separation of church and state is supposed to protect churches from government intrusion, the Judge concluded:

"Plaintiffs … say compliance with the regulations would facilitate access to contraception in violation of the teachings of the Catholic Church. What law or precedent grants this Court authority to conduct an independent inquiry into the correctness of this belief?"

What indeed?

As Americans, we obey the laws of our government.  As Christians, we recognize that all authority has been ordained by God.  But no earthly authority can overrule God. 

It used to be that arguments for freedom of conscience seemed to be the domain only of the pro-choice movement in our country. But now, those of us who are pro-life are the ones most vigorously defending the supremely personal nature of human conscience and moral convictions, and the fact that no government can redefine them or force a person to violate them.

Nor is this a surprise to us, because if a government has already redefined the right to life itself, it is not a stretch at all to redefine the right to religious freedom. And the Obama Administration is proving that every day.

Hence, we now find ourselves in the Supreme Court, with oral arguments scheduled for March 23.

Father Frank Pavone is the national director of Priests for Life.

Fr. Frank Pavone
Fr. Frank Pavone
Father Frank Pavone is the national director of Priests for Life.

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