Two hundred and thirty-seven years ago, a group of Americans representing what were then English colonies gathered in Philadelphia and agreed to risk all they had on a certain proposition.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident," they said, "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
Having won their independence, Americans would eventually write and ratify a Constitution authorizing a limited central government -- and would immediately add to that constitution a Bill of Rights.
The first words in that Bill of Rights say: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
Last fall, Cardinal Frances George, archbishop of Chicago and former president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, published a column in his archdiocesan newspaper under the headline, "The wrong side of history."
"The present political campaign has brought to the surface of our public life the anti-religious sentiment, much of it explicitly anti-Catholic, that has been growing in this country for several decades," the cardinal wrote. "The secularizing of our culture is a much larger issue than political causes or the outcome of the current electoral campaign, important though that is."
He then recounted something he had told some Catholic clergymen.
"Speaking a few years ago to a group of priests, entirely outside of the current political debate, I was trying to express in overly dramatic fashion what the complete secularization of our society could bring," the cardinal said. "I was responding to a question, and I never wrote down what I said, but the words were captured on somebody's smartphone and have now gone viral on Wikipedia and elsewhere in the electronic communications world.
"I am (correctly) quoted as saying that I expected to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square," said the cardinal. "What is omitted from the reports is a final phrase I added about the bishop who follows a possibly martyred bishop: 'His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.'"
Less than a year has passed since Cardinal George published his column, but already his "overly dramatic" vision seems not so "overly dramatic."
Last Friday, the Obama administration finalized a regulation that orders Americans to buy health insurance policies that cover -- without fees or co-pay -- sterilizations, artificial contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs.
"For the overwhelming majority of stakeholders, the proposed regulation offers no exemption or accommodation of any kind whatsoever," the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said in comments on the regulation given to the Department of Health and Human Services in March. "Those without an exemption or accommodation include conscientiously opposed individuals, for-profit employers (whether secular or religious), nonprofit employers that are not explicitly religious organizations (even in cases where their objection is religious in nature), insurers and third-party administrators."
The "accommodation" given to religious nonprofits -- such as Catholic hospitals, universities and charities -- in fact orders such organizations, if they insure their employees, to patronize insurers or third-party administrators (for self-insurance plans) who are themselves willing to pay for abortion-inducing drugs for the nonprofit's employees and their dependents.
A year ago, the nation's Catholic bishops unanimously declared this sterilization-contraception-abortifacient regulation an "unjust and illegal mandate." The Catholic Church has always taught that abortion is a form of murder.
"Nothing and no one can in any way permit the killing of an innocent human being, whether a fetus or an embryo, an infant or an adult, an old person, or one suffering from an incurable disease, or a person who is dying," Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1995 encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae. "Furthermore, no one is permitted to ask for this act of killing, either for himself or herself or for another person entrusted to his or her care, nor can he or she consent to it, either explicitly or implicitly. Nor can any authority legitimately recommend or permit such an action."
A faithful Catholic, freely exercising his or her religion, cannot pay for or provide coverage for abortion-inducing drugs.
So now the Obama administration has issued a dictate to Catholics and those of other denominations who share the Catholic understanding of abortion: You may no longer freely exercise your religion. You must obey us -- even in a matter that involves taking innocent lives.
On Tuesday, a broad coalition of religious Americans, many of whom differ with the Catholic view that artificial contraception is wrong, published an open letter to America.
Among the signatories were Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore; Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals; Presiding Bishop Gary E. Stevenson of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints; the Rev. Matthew C. Harrison, president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod; Rabbi Aryeh Spero, president of the Caucus for America; and Family Research Council President Tony Perkins.
"Very simply," they wrote, "HHS is forcing Citizen A, against his or her moral convictions, to purchase a product for Citizen B." By doing so, they concluded, "HHS breaches the free exercise clause."
If this stands in America, religious freedom does not. And it is a reasonable assumption that those who today order Catholic charities to patronize abortion providers could tomorrow order Catholic bishops into jail.
Terence P. Jeffrey is the editor in chief of CNSnews.com. To find out more about him, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.
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