It’s Time to End Tax Exemptions for Churches That Insist on Politicking from the Pulpit

American Catholic Bishops Conference

My apologies if this post is a little incoherent. I’m hopping mad right now! We don’t yet live in a theocracy–although that danger clearly exists. As of today, the U.S. Constitution still requires the separation of church and state. Priests, ministers, bishops, and other church leaders are not supposed to be advocating for and against political candidates from the pulpit. In their roles as private citizens, they can hold whatever political beliefs they want and they can donate to political candidates. But they need to stop forcing their political views on church audiences.

Yesterday, in Catholic churches all over the U.S., parishioners heard a letter from their bishop denouncing the Obama administration for the January 20th HHS decision to require health plans to cover birth control services without requiring “a co-pay, co-insurance, or a deductible.” HHS Secretary Katherine Sibelius stated that the reason for this requirement is that access to contraception is important to women’s health.

Scientists have abundant evidence that birth control has significant health benefits for women and their families, it is documented to significantly reduce health costs, and is the most commonly taken drug in America by young and middle-aged women. This rule will provide women with greater access to contraception by requiring coverage and by prohibiting cost sharing.

Sibelius explained that this requirement applies to religion-based institutions that employ or serve people who don’t belong to their religion. Therefore, churches per se would be except from the rule, but universities and other religious-based organizations would have to abide by the rule.

Via Business Insider, here is the full text of letter that was read in churches in the Diocese of Marquette (Michigan):

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

I write to you concerning an alarming and serious matter that negatively impacts the Church in the United States directly, and that strikes at the fundamental right to religious liberty for all citizens of any faith. The federal government, which claims to be “of, by, and for the people,” has just been dealt a heavy blow to almost a quarter of those people — the Catholic population — and to the millions more who are served by the Catholic faithful.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced last week that almost all employers,
including Catholic employers, will be forced to offer their employees’ health coverage that includes sterilization, abortion-inducing drugs, and contraception. Almost all health insurers will be forced to include those “services” in the health policies they write. And almost all individuals will be forced to buy that coverage as a part of their policies.

In so ruling, the Obama Administration has cast aside the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, denying to Catholics our Nation’s first and most fundamental freedom, that of religious liberty. And as a result, unless the rule is overturned, we Catholics will be compelled to either violate our consciences, or to drop health coverage for our employees (and suffer the penalties for doing so). The Obama Administration’s sole concession was to give our institutions one year to comply.

We cannot—we will not—comply with this unjust law. People of faith cannot be made second class citizens. We are already joined by our brothers and sisters of all faiths and many others of good will in this important effort to regain our religious freedom. Our parents and grandparents did not come to these shores to help build America’s cities and towns, its infrastructure and institutions, its enterprise and culture,
only to have their posterity stripped of their God given rights. In generations past, the Church has always been able to count on the faithful to stand up and protect her sacred rights and duties. I hope and trust she can count on this generation of Catholics to do the same. Our children and grandchildren deserve nothing less.

And therefore, I would ask of you two things. First, as a community of faith we must commit ourselves to prayer and fasting that wisdom and justice may prevail, and religious liberty may be restored. Without God, we can do nothing; with God, nothing is impossible. Second, I would also recommend visiting http://www.usccb.org/conscience,to learn more about this severe assault on religious liberty, and how to contact Congress in support of legislation that would reverse the Obama Administration’s decision.

Sincerely yours in Christ,
+Alexander K. Sample
Most Reverend Alexander K. Sample
Bishop of Marquette

The author of the Business Insider article, Michael Brendan Dougherty, uses a flawed analogy to defend the bishops for their action and their decision to flout the law.

it would be like the government mandating that all delis, even Kosher delis, serve pork products and then justifying it by saying that protein is healthy, and many Jews who don’t follow Kosher laws and many non-Jews go to those delis. The law wouldn’t technically ban Jews from owning delis, but it would effectively ban their ability to run them according to their conscience.

WTF?! Jewish delis do not receive federal funds to subsidize the selling of pork, and scientists have not found pork to be vital to the health of more than half of the U.S. population. For Dougherty’s information, unwanted pregnancies can be dangerous to women’s physical and mental health. Furthermore, the more unwanted pregnancies there are, the more abortions there will be. The rule will therefore reduce the number of abortions in this country. And BTW, no individual is required to use birth control. The Catholic bishops know that most Catholics used it, and they are simply trying to intimidate people. If an individual Catholic wants to follow the church’s ludicrous (IMO) rules against birth control, she is free to do so. An editorial by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune says it much better than I could:

The Obama administration…made the right decision. Birth control access is critical for women and children’s health, ensuring that kids are born to parents ready for this responsibility. Lost in all the heated rhetoric over this milestone public health measure are several important points.

This policy does not require anyone to use birth control. In addition, courts have already rejected claims by Catholic organizations that requiring contraceptive coverage in employee health plans violates their religious freedom.

Requiring these religiously affiliated institutions to cover birth control in their plans is nothing new. Twenty-eight states (Minnesota isn’t one) already have “contraceptive equity” laws requiring birth control coverage for many plans covering prescription drugs.

In 2004, the California Supreme Court, noting that many of these organizations’ employees are not Catholic, soundly rejected a challenge to the state’s contraceptive equity law. It concluded that the state can enact employment laws to protect workers, even if these laws conflict with the employers’ religious beliefs.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Catholic Charities’ appeal. New York’s highest court rejected a similar claim by Catholic Charities on grounds that the law didn’t target religious beliefs and that a broad public interest is served by addressing gender disparities in medical costs.

The U.S. Supreme Court has also decided on multiple occasions that religious beliefs do not protect discriminatory practices, such as failing to comply with civil rights laws.

Denise Grady, in an article published in The New York Times and The Herald Tribune writes:

About half of pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, and about four out of 10 of those end in abortion, according to the Institute of Medicine report, which was released last July. It noted that providing birth control could lower both pregnancy and abortion rates. It also cited studies showing that women with unintended pregnancies are more likely to be depressed and to smoke, drink and delay or skip prenatal care, potentially harming fetuses and putting babies at increased risk of being born prematurely and having low birth weight.

Grady provides a number of real-life examples. Here’s just one:

One recent Georgetown law graduate, who asked not to be identified for reasons of medical privacy, said she had polycystic ovary syndrome, a condition for which her doctor prescribed birth control pills. She is gay and had no other reason to take the pills. Georgetown does not cover birth control for students, so she made sure her doctor noted the diagnosis on her prescription. Even so, coverage was denied several times. She finally gave up and paid out of pocket, more than $100 a month. After a few months she could no longer afford the pills. Within months she developed a large ovarian cyst that had to be removed surgically — along with her ovary.

“If I want children, I’ll need a fertility specialist because I have only one working ovary,” she said.

A spokeswoman for Georgetown, Stacy Kerr, said that problems like this were rare and that doctors at the health service knew how to help students get coverage for contraceptives needed for medical reasons.

Really? Then why was this woman “denied” coverage “several times?” Give me a break!

Even supposed “liberal” E.J. Dionne weighed in on the side of the church:

In its interim rules in August, HHS excluded from this requirement only those “religious employers” who primarily serve and employ members of their own faith traditions. This exempted churches from the rule, but not Catholic universities or social-service agencies and hospitals that help tens of thousands of non-Catholics.

As a general matter, it made perfect sense to cover contraception. Many see doing so as protecting women’s rights, and expanded contraception coverage will likely reduce the number of abortions. While the Catholic Church formally opposes contraception, this teaching is widely ignored by the faithful. One does not see many Catholic families of six or 10 or twelve that were quite common in the 1950s. Contraception might have something to do with this.

Speaking as a Catholic, I wish the Church would be more open on the contraception question. But speaking as an American liberal who believes that religious pluralism imposes certain obligations on government, I think the Church’s leaders had a right to ask for broader relief from a contraception mandate that would require it to act against its own teachings. The administration should have done more to balance the competing liberty interests here.

I am sick and tired of this sh*t! We’re talking about the rights and the health of more than half of the population! Does Dionne realize that 98% of Catholics have used birth control at one time or another? It’s time to take away the tax exempt status of churches who use the power of the pulpit to try to intimidate their parishioners into voting for or against a candidate based on ridiculous (IMO) religious rules that hurt women. If religious universities and charities wish to ignore the law, then they too should lose their government subsidies and/or tax exemptions.