Efforts to repel the Obama Administration’s attack on liberty of conscience suffered a setback today on the floor of the U.S. Senate, but in the process kept alive an issue on which an extraordinary variety of Americans are willing to continue fighting – and with good reason.
The core hubris of President Obama’s attack on conscience is his apparent belief that manipulations of language alone can defuse the controversy over his preventive services mandate and its destructive effects on religious entities and other employers. But there is subject matter that is beyond both political spin and media messaging. A conscience knows when it has been trampled upon. Religious institutions know when they are acting in accord with the tenets of their faith, and the history of religious providers in the realm of health care is as long and noble as any in the course of civilization. Pressing faith-based providers, and other entities that are nonreligious but no less conscientious in their moral beliefs, into the service of President Obama’s “reproductive health” agenda is a breathtaking violation of fundamental principles of liberty.
Those principles are set forth clearly in the First Amendment, and they are linked to but not limited by that amendment’s language barring Congress from making laws limiting the free exercise of religion. No person can be required to enter the membership rolls of a church in order to have a conscience worthy of respect, but when people order their affairs so as to maximize their ability to act in accord with a belief system, the Constitution (as well as the Congress acting in its name) shifts the burden to the state to show that its actions reflect a compelling interest and that it is pursuing that interest in the least restrictive manner possible.
As the recent testimony of Bishop William Lori, head of the U.S. Catholic Conference’s religious liberty committee, demonstrated, when government ignores the Constitution in so blatant a manner, Newspeak must multiply. On February 10 President Obama announced an “accommodation” of religious employers but proceeded to adopt the offensive mandate “without change.” Bishop Lori noted the irony:
“[T]he ‘accommodation’ is just a legally unenforceable promise to alter the way the mandate would still apply to those who are still not exempt from it; moreover, the promised alteration appears logically impossible. Meanwhile, the mandate itself is still finalized ‘without change,’ excluding in advance any expansion of the ‘religious employer’ exemption. In the world-turned-upside-down that we have all entered since the mandate issued, this is not merely ‘no change,’ but is heralded as ‘great change,’ for which the Administration has been widely congratulated.”
Conscience is not merely some serene zone of dissent from prevailing views. It serves as creative a set of purposes as the market itself does, allowing civil society to flourish by enabling private groups to operate on premises that build new institutions reflective of their deepest values. From the outset, the Affordable Care Act has been at war with this function and worth of conscience, singularly pursuing some goals (universal coverage, lower costs) while sacrificing the very elements (consumer choice, personal responsibility, liberty of conscience, the doctor-patient relationship) that make health care both affordable and, indeed, healthy. The result of this sacrifice will be fewer choices, higher cost, and, as a result, even more mandates from Washington.
The Obama Administration has heralded this latest and sweeping mandate, with the narrowest religious exemption ever offered in federal law, as the epitome of “choice.” As Lori told the House Judiciary Committee:
“‘[C]hoice’ suddenly means ‘force.’ This is not even a matter of whether contraception may be supported by the government . . . Instead, it is a matter of whether religious people and institutions may be forced by the government to provide coverage for contraception or sterilization, even if that violates their religious beliefs.”
So it goes in the vast verbal Oceania of ObamaCare.