By Jay Nies
If the president won’t uphold Americans’ constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion and conscience, state and federal lawmakers must step in and do what is right.
So stated Bishop John R. Gaydos of Jefferson City on Feb. 14, in testimony before a state Senate committee.
The bishop was testifying in favor of a bill to prevent insurers in Missouri from being forced to pay for contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs.
“This legislation will place in state law a strong and clear prohibition on government infringement on religious liberty, and send a strong message to Congress that Missouri opposes the federal government trampling on our religious freedoms,” Bishop Gaydos stated.
Testifying before the Senate’s Committee on Small Business, Insurance and Industry, Bishop Gaydos expressed the Missouri Catholic bishops’ strong united support for Senate Bill 749, sponsored by state Sen. John Lamping (R-St. Louis).
SB 749 states that no employer or health plan shall be required to provide health coverage for abortion, contraception or sterilization if such items are contrary to the religious beliefs or moral convictions of the employer.
The proposed legislation also would prevent the government from discriminating against or penalizing an employer or health plan for refusing to provide such coverage. Under the bill, individuals could not be forced to purchase health plans that include coverage for abortion, contraception or sterilization if such items violate their religious or moral beliefs.
“Passage of this legislation, and (of similar) federal legislation sponsored by U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt (of Missouri) and co-sponsored by many Missouri congresspersons, is absolutely imperative at this time,” Bishop Gaydos stated.
State Sen. Lamping is a member of Our Lady of the Pillar parish in St. Louis.
His bill is a response to the Jan. 20 announcement that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will require all employee health plans, including those funded by the Catholic Church and other religious organizations, to pay for contraceptives, sterilization procedures and abortion-inducing drugs.
Federal regulators announced the requirement as part of ongoing implementation of the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, passed in 2010.
Employers were told they would be given a year to begin offering co-pay-free contraception and sterilization coverage. Heavy fines will be assessed for employers that fail to do so.
The announcement of the HHS mandate brought swift condemnation from a broad spectrum of leaders inside and outside the Church, because the mandate would force employers to pay for drugs and procedures that many find objectionable to their consciences.
The federal mandate does include a religious exception, but it is too narrow to cover most Catholic institutions such as hospitals, universities and social-services providers that employ and serve many non-Catholics.
In response to the vocal and united opposition to the HHS’ contraceptive mandate, the Obama Administration on Feb. 10 announced what it called a compromise plan, in which employers would not be forced to pay for contraceptive services that violate their consciences. But their health insurers would be required to pay for those services.
Catholic leaders — including Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan of New York, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — said the president’s compromise would not address the most important concerns. The Church would still be forced to be an agent of providing services that specifically go against its teachings.
Bishop Gaydos told the Senate committee that “this so-called ‘compromise’ falls far short of protecting the religious liberties our citizens so rightly cherish.”
By contrast, he stated, SB 749 would go a long way toward protecting the religious liberties not just of Church employers but of all employers in the state.
He said the Catholic bishops are gratified by the strong solidarity shown by so many churches during the recent threat to religious liberty.
“We are also deeply appreciative of the many people who have come to the defense of the Church’s ministry through its schools, hospitals and charities,” he said.
He acknowledged that while the Church could avoid a conflict with the new federal regulations by offering health care, education and charity only to Catholics, doing so would be diametrically opposed to what it means to be Roman Catholic.
“Since the founding of our nation, the Church has sought to provide care for the sick, the orphan and the very poor,” said Bishop Gaydos. “Our faith requires us to reach out to all people in need, not just Catholics. This is our mission. We will not retreat from it.”
He said that if Church leaders have learned anything in recent weeks, it is that federal regulators cannot be trusted to safeguard Americans’ religious liberties.
“Without clear guidance from the new federal health care law, regulators proceeded to write a rule that violates the moral and religious convictions of Americans,” he said.
He emphasized that the key issue is not the Church’s teaching on abortion or birth control.
“The real question is whether or not the Church — as well as other religious bodies — should have the freedom to proclaim her teaching publicly and to practice it in a nation founded on the right to religious liberty,” he said.
The bishop urged lawmakers to act quickly to pass SB 749.
“Assault on religious liberty”
State Sen. Scott Rupp (R-Wentzville), the committee chairman, thanked the bishop for his testimony.
“I wholeheartedly agree that this transcends some of the talking points we are hearing,” said Sen. Rupp, a member of St. Patrick parish in Wentzville. “This really is just about a full frontal assault on religious liberty, the like of which we haven’t seen in my lifetime.”
“Religious liberties are facing their greatest threat in literally generations in America,” said Terry Messer, testifying on behalf of Missouri Baptist Convention, in favor of the bill.
He said the debate is as much about individual religious freedom as it is about liberty for religious institutions.
“We are very concentrated about individuals having the right to live under the concepts and the convictions of their own heart, their own faith — whether they’re Baptist, whether they’re Catholic or whether they’re anything else,” he said.
Also testifying in favor of the bill were: Joanne Schrader, a member of St. Peter parish in Fulton; and representatives of Missouri Right to Life, Campaign Life Missouri, the Missouri chapter of Women of America and the Missouri Family Policy Council.
Testifying against the bill were representatives from Planned Parenthood of Mid-Missouri and the ACLU of Eastern Missouri.
After the hearing, the Senate committee approved the bill and forwarded it to the full Senate for consideration.
Listen to Bishop Gaydos’ testimony here.