Over the Top!

The venerable “wall of separation” has served as a cautionary metaphor for limiting the mutually deleterious influences that both Church and State have had – historically – when either exceeds the bounds of its authority and competence. Whatever else might be said about how the Vice President of the United States conducted himself at the debate last week, his response to the last question carried him well over the top of the wall. Not only did he misrepresent the nature and consequences of this brazen overreach of legitimate state authority in the now infamous HHS mandate; in so doing he may gave given false refuge to likely voters whose consciences impel them to reckon with the issue.

This is not to say that to raise a red flag atop the wall over the danger the HHS ruling presents to conscience rights of American citizens necessarily requires only one strategic outcome. Other issues affecting the sanctity of human life and the protection of human rights are raised by each party’s platform and must be contemplated. The need to remain informed, reflect seriously and to wrestle with one’s decision, however, cannot be glibly whisked away by facile palliatives such as the one served up by Vice President Joseph Biden.

Spotting the inaccuracy, Rep. Paul Ryan retorted that the American bishops would not be in litigation with the federal government today were no significant violation of our fundamental freedoms at stake. The bishops themselves were quick to reiterate their position. Disputing Biden’s claim that religious institutions will not be required to pay for insurance coverage that includes contraception, sterilization and drugs that may induce abortions, the bishops directly countered the vice president’s distortion of the “facts.” Thus far, the White House has not responded to a request last Monday for comment.

“The HHS mandate,” the bishops explain in their letter, “contains a narrow, four-part exemption for certain ‘religious employers.’” A proposal by the White House last February that would have placed the burden on the institution’s insurance companies generated several costly lawsuits, among other reasons because many religious institutions – like the Brooklyn Diocese – are self-insured and would, therefore, become that insurer who pays. Contrary to the specific examples cited by Biden, the bishops note that the exemption does not extend to “Catholic social services, Georgetown Hospital, Mercy Hospital, any hospital.”

Many, if not all Catholic social services, do not limit their care-giving to people of our own religion. The government mandate – even with its purported “exemption” – would effectively limit our First Amendment right of free exercise, restraining us from living the Gospel mandate and constraining us to serve only Catholics – hardly a position that a Mother Teresa or a Father Damien would tolerate.

Much has been proffered to deride “one-issue voting,” sometimes to evade or relativize the reality that some issues may take priority over others. There is a difference between matters involving fundamental principles and those concerned with strategies. One might affirm as a principle, for example, that legislation is advisable so that the uninsured can receive adequate medical care. What the most effective strategies might be and how, in our federal system, they are to be apportioned among the states and the federal government is eminently debatable. One might also acknowledge in principle – as our bishops have – that our immigration law needs reform but that the preservation and unity of families must never be compromised. How this comes to be implemented might invite a spirited debate, yet always informed by first principles.

To simply run roughshod over the free conscience rights of American citizens, regardless of their religious faith – and by administrative fiat no less! – is an insult to our democratic processes. It is also to set the ship of state on a dangerously uncharted course without a moral compass, replacing principle with raw power or political expediency.