For centuries, the Catholic Church has long offered premier education, health care, and social services to the people of this country and around the world.

In the U.S., appropriate accommodations have been in place, which allows the church to serve those in need in a pluralistic society across life’s spectrum without violating our convictions. We offer this service, not because those we help are all Catholic, but because we are Catholic — responding in concrete ways to the words of Jesus: “Whatever you do for the least, you do for me.”

When we speak of “religious liberty,” we refer not only to freedom to worship in our sanctuaries and teach our doctrines to other Catholics. From the days of our nation’s founders, religious liberty has also meant the freedom to live out the commitments of our faith in public life, making faith’s unique contribution of service, moral guidance and community to our fellow citizens.

Lately, this rich heritage of our religious liberty has been increasingly challenged. I have written before sharing my concerns with the “preventive services mandate” from the federal Department of Health and Human Services, often known as the “HHS mandate.” The mandate requires all employer health insurance plans to pay for sterilization, contraceptives and abortion-causing drugs.

Despite tens of thousands of written comments from faithful citizens opposing the mandate, and in the face of dozens of lawsuits challenging it, it remains scheduled to go into effect fully Aug. 1, 2013, when even the one-year “safe harbor” granted to organizations with religious objections to the mandate expires.

The Catholic Church joins many people of other faiths and those who profess no particular faith in opposing the mandate. We do so for two fundamental reasons.

First, contraception and sterilization are not health care, since fertility is not a disease or condition that must be treated medically. Nor are these interventions rare and inaccessible in our nation, as our declining birthrate demonstrates clearly. More troubling still are drugs that directly and intentionally end a human life in the womb, a moral wrong that can never be justified, much less condoned and advanced.

Second, even those who do not share this moral vision can join us in opposing its heavy-handed enforcement. The fine on non-exempt organizations for failing to comply (soon to include all those not directly affiliated with a diocese or parish) is staggering: $100 per employee per day. Imagine a Catholic hospital or university employing 1,000 people — and facing an annual fine of over $36 million. Even if accommodations were broadened to allow Catholic institutions themselves to be exempt, private Catholic business owners would not share this protection and small businesses with a workforce of 50 people would likely fail in the face of a $1.8 million fine.

The HHS mandate is but one example of the pressure that a growing secularism brings to bear on our moral witness. At its core, the mandate does not advance liberty, ensuring that Catholic values are not imposed on all; rather, it violates our liberty, since it imposes secular values on the church. It is one thing to tolerate, even if reluctantly, the private choices of individuals. It is another thing entirely to be forced to pay for those choices.

In opposing the mandate, we are not asking for some special privilege or accommodations. We are simply asking for the same freedoms promised all of us by the Constitution.

The church has no desire to oppose the legitimate exercise of civil government in fostering the common good. And given our long history of service to that common good in caring for those who are ill, hungry, troubled or otherwise in need, there is no legitimate reason for civil government to oppose us.

I encourage you to join me once again in communicating with the federal Department of Health and Human Services to urge that the HHS mandate be rescinded, or at least revised to provide consistent and genuine conscience protections for all objecting religious organizations and their individual members. If we do not speak up — respectfully, peacefully, but clearly — such silence will be taken either as consent or indifference. Your voice matters, that we might continue to live our faith and serve the needs of our sisters and brothers in the true freedom that leads to God.

+John F. Kinney
Bishop of Saint Cloud