Health care act sparks moral debate

By Tim Shaunnessey

Separation of church and state has long been a contentious issue. Recently, issues of religious freedom versus the prevention of discrimination have resulted in conflicts between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Catholic Church.

During an April 16 forum about the separation of church and state in an age of health care reform, Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago, spoke at the Union League Club, 65 W. Jackson Blvd.

Controversy has stemmed from the Affordable Care Act signed by President Barack Obama in 2010. The act requires all institutions that provide health care plans to employees to offer coverage for pregnancy prevention. The mandate extends to Catholic hospitals and churches that receive public funding, which conflicts with the moral values of the institutions, according to George.

“It’s a question of whether or not we can cooperate in the evil of paying for things that we think are immoral,” he said. “We pay for contraception if it has a medical use, if it’s not used to prevent pregnancy, which isn’t a disease.”

George said contraceptive medications, such as birth control pills, can be used as a means of preventing cancer or regulating a woman’s biochemistry, but those are the only instances in which the Catholic Church supports their use.

Edwin Yohnka, director of Communications and Public Policy at the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, said if Catholic institutions are going to accept support from the government and operate as public entities, then they must behave as such.

“You can’t say, ‘Give us public dollars for us to do our religious work and let us decide which of the state’s discrimination laws we’re going to follow and which we aren’t,’” Yohnka said.

According to George, the government is not respecting previous policies that prevented institutions from being forced into actions opposing their beliefs.

Simon Brown, a representative for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a nonpartisan organization based in Washington, D.C., said his organization disagrees with the archbishop’s assertions. He said there were loopholes specifically provided in the legislation to prevent the moral issues from directly impacting Catholic institutions.

“The only issue under debate is whether or not groups like hospitals or colleges that are affiliated with religious organizations should have to provide [contraceptive] coverage,” Brown said. “What the Obama administration has proposed is that they don’t have to provide coverage directly, [but] they can contract with a third party. And no one is being forced to get anything they don’t want. [The Church] really doesn’t have a leg to stand on here.”

George said he sees problems beyond the issue of contraception and that the larger issue is how narrow the specifications for religious

exemptions are. He said he feels the government is dictating what is and what is not a religious institution by making the criteria too specific. He said the freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment has been interpreted to allow the government to determine which public institutions fit the religious criteria.

According to George, the mandate says an institution does not have religious affiliation unless its primary objective is teaching religious values.

“The [government] is telling us how to be a church,” he said. “There’s a constitutional issue here about freedom of religion and also the theft of identity in the sense that we are able to operate but not in conformity with the Catholic institutional conscience if we’re going to be [in the public domain].”