Without the courage and the constancy of Methodists and of Quakers, the struggle to abolish slavery in the United States would not have succeeded. Later, the heroes of the civil rights movement were people of faith — both clergy and laypersons — while the movement’s leaders, let us recall, were named the Reverend Martin Luther King, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the Reverend Andrew Young. In the front ranks of the politically unpopular antiwar movement could be found nuns, ministers, seminarians and rabbinical students. Religion has indeed provided added value to the national and local life of the United States.
Which brings us, indirectly, to the current national crisis precipitated by the Obama administration’s mandate requiring that all health plans provide, free of charge, contraceptives and sterilization, with only a narrow exception for those religious organizations that teach that sterilization and contraception are sinful. The exception is limited to religious organizations that employ exclusively or primarily members of their own faith, basically indoctrinate religious teachings and provide services primarily to members of their own faith.
As a practicing, and manifestly imperfect, Catholic whose fury and outrage at the abuse of children by priests — and the subsequent cover-ups by bishops — remains white-hot today, I still know that the mission of the Christian is to be of service to the world, especially to those living in the shadows and on the outskirts of hope. The Obama administration rule decrees that to qualify for the religious exemption historically extended to any religious organization, the group must only be doing undeniably religious tasks within its own sectarian community.
Missing completely is any consideration of the common good. What about the “prior” mandate to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to comfort the widow and the orphan? The administration rule has decided that these do not qualify as the religious mission of the church.
Jesus Christ, who spent his public years curing, feeding and treating people way, way outside of his own religious community, would not qualify for an exception under the administration’s latest rule.
Catholic Charities, with more than 81 percent of its workforce composed of volunteers, last year provided food, safe haven, understanding and counsel more than 10.5 million different times. As the late Archbishop of Washington James Hickey explained when it was pointed out by some of his major contributors that Washington, D.C.‘s catholic schools had an increasingly non-Catholic enrollment and much of the diocese’s budget was going for social services to people who did not go to church: “We don’t do this because they’re Catholic. We do this because we’re Catholic.”
Please, Mr. President, do not tell your admirable and valuable fellow citizens they are not honoring their religious imperative. If churches do close their hearts and their doors to the poor and the lonely, who — in our era of relentless budget cuts and ever-smaller government — will offer a hand to the scared immigrant, to the left-out and the left-behind?
This debate is not about contraception. No, this debate is about conscience. It is about the meaning of religious liberty. President Barack Obama has made a decision that is bad policy, bad precedent and bad politics.
When he launched his long-shot White House bid five years ago, Obama did not have a closer friend or more important supporter than then-Virginia governor and now U.S. Senate candidate Tim Kaine. There is not a more honorable man in public life. The White House, Kaine said last week, “made a bad decision in not allowing a broad enough religious-employer exemption.” For his own good and the good of the country, Obama should heed Kaine.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.