Guest Columnists

Can’t Be a Little Unconstitutional

by Stephen Kent

A woman once was told where to sit on a public bus. A group of young people once were told where to sit in a public lunchroom. Many students once were told where they would go to school.

Taken individually, these examples would have been unremarkable if solved locally. Rosa Parks would sit where she pleased on a city bus, black college students would be allowed at lunch counters in Woolworth’s and black students would attend a school of their choice.

These instances seen as individual issues would never solve what was at their root – systemic racial prejudice.

It was more than where to sit on a bus, where to have lunch,  or where to go to school. It was a matter of a group – a racial minority – being denied their constitutional rights. These incidents were packaged, branded as civil rights, which then resulted in legislation that brought practices into line with the Constitution.

Success came only when isolated incidents were recognized for more than they appeared.

Now, as then, it is necessary to convince a majority of the country that mandates within the Department of Health and Human Services regulations are about more than contraception.

The mandate forces institutions, against their conscience, to pay for things they consider immoral. The coercive power of the state imposing regulation on beliefs must be known as a matter of religious liberty.

The issue, well-known now, is the federal mandate requiring institutions – including Catholic schools, hospitals, social agencies – to provide contraception and sterilization in health insurance to employees.

A narrow exemption is made only for a church or diocese.

“The remedy to the problem is the teaching of the church as opposed to lawyers and litigation. The message is religious liberty,” said Anthony Picarello, general counsel of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“It is very important the bishops be speaking out, not just on the law, but on church teaching on religious liberty,” Picarello said in a news conference.

“The coercive power of the state is being applied to provide, sponsor, pay for things that violate our most deeply held religious convictions,” he said.

The USCCB supports the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act introduced in both houses of Congress (H.R. 1179/S. 1467) to ensure that those who participate in the market for health insurance “retain the right to provide, purchase, or enroll in health coverage that is consistent with their religious beliefs and moral convictions.”

Don’t accept the secular description of what is at issue. Direct compulsion makes it a matter of religious liberty. Understanding the issue to be religious liberty, not just contraception, will find broader support.

It is a complex issue. One of the traditional ways of teaching (favored by Jesus) is by a parable.

Bishop William E. Lori, of Bridgeport, Conn., did it well in relating the parable of the kosher deli to a House committee. He set the example in a parable of a country where a new law requires all businesses to serve pork, including kosher delicatessens.

“The mandate generates the question whether people who believe – even if they believe in error – that pork is not good for you should be forced by the government to serve pork within their very own institutions,” Lori said, adding, “In a nation committed to religious liberty and diversity, the answer, of course, is: No.”

Bishop Lori’s testimony and other USCCB resources can be found at

Picarello said the bishops are going to press for 100% compliance with the Constitution. “There is no such thing as a little unconstitutional,” he said.[hr] Kent, now retired, was editor of archdiocesan newspapers in Omaha and Seattle.