HHS mandate does not allow free exercise of religion in US

Nearly two and a half millennia ago there was a man of conviction. Unabashedly, he shared this conviction with those who would listen, artfully persuading rather than forcefully coercing and winning the hearts of many with the eloquence of his words and the merit of his worldview. But like all noble souls who urge the world toward fortitude in conviction irrespective of what is culturally convenient, this man was eventually maligned by the State, which found him a nuisance to the status quo and a stubborn antagonizer of the culture.

No, I am not speaking of Jesus but of another long before him — the philosopher, Socrates. And like the Catholics of today (be they bishops or laity), Socrates was given an ultimatum by the State: Change (or mute) your convictions or suffer the consequences. Socrates rejected the hypothetical proposal to “spend the rest of your life in quietly minding your own business,” and, in similar fashion, the Catholic Church echoes in concert with Socrates his reply, “If I say that, this would be disobedient to God, and that is why I cannot ‘mind my own business.’”

Though centering around the topic of contraception, the current crisis of the HHS mandate declared jointly by Kathleen Sebelius and President Obama is an issue of freedoms, not an issue of the merit of contraception. Certainly, the Catholic Church has retained since its earliest times a unique vision for the dignity and grandeur of sex, and because of this (not in spite of it), the Church has held since ancient times the conviction that contraceptive behavior frustrates the full glory of sex as “a sign and pledge of spiritual communion” between a man and a woman.

Nevertheless, the current political conflict is not a concern over whether or not the Catholic faith is correct about contraception. On the contrary, it is a concern as to whether the State has supreme license to wield a weapon against people’s convictions indiscriminately.

To be sure, the Constitution demands that the State “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” yet it goes on to add the phrase “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The unconditional coercion to act contrary to one’s conscience under force of penalty is a far cry from a “free exercise” of religion.

It is, instead, an enslavement of religion, a relegating of religion to mere internal adherence to a mythology that should in no way impact how one lives one’s life. It is a negation of religious conviction as a truly human endeavor which permeates the whole of a person and bears natural license to influence one’s human actions and determine which behaviors one will promote and participate, precisely because it is inherent and inviolate freedom, granted by the Constitution and human nature itself. Such an action of the State in no way preserves a genuine “free exercise” of religion but, rather, seeks to restrict and regulate the exercise of religious beliefs.

What begins here in this particular conflict will inevitably cascade to impact every moral compass, religious or not. For once the government is permitted to act with disregard for individual freedoms of conscience with impunity, no barrier any longer exists to prevent any dimension of the life of its citizens from manipulation under the dictate of the State. Though most Americans find no fault in the use of contraception, what begins in this mandate paves the way for a host of other possible prohibitions on free exercise of religion.

What will become of the free exercise of religion if, for example, infanticide of children born with defects or assisted suicide of the terminally ill are civilly determined to be basic human rights, covered by health insurance? What rights will citizens retain to not compromise their religious convictions then? Who will be exempt from participating in these actions, and who will be compelled to drink the poison with Socrates?

_Shawn Reeves, Director of Religious Education, St. John’s Chapel_