What's all the fuss about?

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his past month has seen a lot of controversy between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Roman Catholic Church's leadership in America.

HHS, as an arm of President Obama's administration, mandated that most religious institutions had to provide coverage for contraception, including the "morning after" pill.

Why is this a problem?

Catholics believe that the "morning after" pill is a form of abortion. Furthermore, they cannot affirm contraception because it inhibits the procreation of human life. Whether or not you agree, this is their position.

For them to be forced to operate against their own beliefs is to be forced to violate the teachings of their religion. It is not wrong to interpret the original HHS decision, backed up by the president's telephone call to the Catholic leadership, as a violation of the U.S. Constitution of the United States.

In the First Amendment, the Constitution guarantees that the government will not interfere with the free exercise of religion. By its HHS rule, the administration is actually attacking the religious freedom of the Catholic Church.

As a Lutheran pastor, it concerns me that the Catholic Church is being threatened at this time, because my church's teaching may be threatened next time.

The HHS rule allowed a narrow exemption clause, based on whether the government determines that a religiously-owned hospital hires and serves mostly members of its own faith. This is interesting, because the vast majority of hospitals across America were founded by Christian denominations, whether Methodist, Presbyterian or Roman Catholic, and some by Jewish people as well. Hardly any, save U.S. military hospitals, were founded by the government with public tax dollars.

In our own town, Providence St. Mary Medical Center was founded by Roman Catholics and Walla Walla General Hospital by Seventh-day Adventists, yet they have always served the wider community, serving many who do not participate in their respective religions. Under the rule, HHS could determine that neither hospital qualifies for an exemption.

Therefore, Catholic Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane wrote, "The real issue is that now a government bureaucracy - heretofore specifically precluded from doing so by the Constitution and over 230 years of court precedent - will decide what it means for any church to be a church and what defines the permissible exercise of religion."

To add to the original conflict, the U.S. Army got involved. The Army Office of Chaplains forbade chaplains to read Archbishop Timothy Broglio's letter to their congregations, which Catholic priests were instructed to read to Roman Catholics at Mass, including the Catholic men and women who serve in the armed forces. Catholic chaplains were forbidden to read the short letter unless a specific sentence were removed.

What's the problem? Years ago the U.S. Congress determined that American citizens serving as soldiers and sailors must have access to the worship and instruction of their own religions. That historic policy was broken when Roman Catholics in the Army were denied the opportunity to hear their archbishop's letter, a letter which taught and instructed them according to the dictates of their own faith.

After this initial conflict, the Obama administration announced that Catholic hospitals would not have to provide contraceptive pills or abortifacients, but the insurance companies would be required to pay for them. So there is no religious or conscience clause for the insurance people, even if providing such pills offends their consciences and their religious commitments. Furthermore, many religious institutions are self-insured and cannot pass the buck. The takeover of the health care system by the government means that the agenda of government officials will trump relgion, morality or matters of conscience in decision-making and practice.

Why should any of this matter?

It matters because freedom is a whole pie that cannot be compromised. If you remove a slice, you have less. If you attack or minimize freedom in one area of life, it reduces freedom in other areas.

If you reduce economic freedom, you will reduce political freedom. If you disrespect freedom of conscience by minimizing freedom of religion, you will eventually minimize freedom of speech, as the Army Office of Chaplains did.

We need the whole pie.

The Rev. Mark Koonz is pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church. You may email him at EmmanuelOffice@wwelc.org or call him at 509-525-6872. Pastors in the U-B circulation area who want to write a column should contact Catherine Hicks at 509-526-8312, or by e-mail at catherinehicks@wwub.com.

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