By Kimberly Baker
In early October, the U.S. government made two announcements affirming the importance of religious liberty in our country.
First, the Attorney General issued a memorandum offering guidance on "Federal Law Protections for Religious Liberty." The Attorney General's memorandum affirms the importance of protecting the freedom of faith-based organizations to operate in accordance with their religious missions.
Second, the Trump Administration announced a broad religious and moral exemption from the current mandate of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) requiring health insurance coverage for various forms of contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs and devices.
The broadened exemption from the HHS mandate will protect Catholic and other faith-based institutions—as well as non-sectarian groups like the March for Life that have moral objections to participating in abortion—from being forced to cover items in their health plans that go against their deeply held religious beliefs or moral convictions.
Critics of these announcements immediately claimed that such exemptions would "roll back progress" and be an imposition on the wider society. But, in fact, the opposite is true.
If religious freedom is not protected so that faith-based organizations and individuals can live according to their religious beliefs, we risk a slippery slope of state-imposed coercion and a gradual loss of freedom for all. History has shown that suppressing religious practices of ordinary citizens can lead to other civil liberties being taken away—such as free speech and freedom of assembly.
As a society, we recognize an individual person's right to religious freedom; it logically follows that this same freedom can be exercised peacefully by a group of individuals and the faith-based institutions and organizations they operate (see Dignitatis Humanae, no. 4). It is a serious violation of freedom for a government to compel a faith-based organization to adhere to a law or policy that goes against the very beliefs it was founded upon. Such compulsion essentially erases that aspect of the institution's religious identity and suppresses it unjustly.
Allowing faith-based organizations to operate according to their religious beliefs can hardly be called an imposition on the rest of society. Individuals are free to choose their place of employment, taking into consideration whether they are willing to respect its mission. If they disagree with some aspect of the mission—whether faith-based or otherwise—they are free to work elsewhere.
By adhering to their founding beliefs, religious groups aren't "forcing" their views on society; rather, the true imposition is the stifling and suppression of religious identity and expression—within these groups' own operations, even—due to mandatory laws. It is therefore completely valid and fair for a government to grant such religious exemptions.
Real progress is allowing faith-based organizations to be true to their religious identities and have the freedom to serve by contributing to the good of society in various ways. The recent policy developments allow Catholic organizations to continue being faithful to their religious mission and identity, especially regarding the sanctity of life. While it is our hope that the sacredness of human life be respected in all areas of society, we are certainly within our rights to live and operate according to our beliefs within our own Catholic organizations. Therefore, the Administration's recent announcements pertaining to religious liberty are proper affirmations of this freedom.
Kimberly Baker is Programs and Projects Coordinator for the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. For more information on the bishops' pro-life activities, please visit www.usccb.org/prolife.