Don’t need bifocals to read the signs of the times

Peter Finney Jr    When left is right and up is down, it doesn’t take someone with rare perceptiveness to read and interpret the signs of the times.
    Despite its soaring rhetoric about striking an “appropriate balance between respecting religious liberty and increasing access to important preventive services,” the Obama administration, in its mandate that Catholic institutions provide health coverage to employees for abortion-inducing drugs and surgical sterilization, has spelled out a not-too-subliminal message to Catholics: Your conscience doesn’t count.
    “It’s done, it’s over,” said Dorinda Bordlee, vice president and senior counsel with the Bioethics Defense Fund. “We need to recognize that the bishops’ efforts at peaceful negotiations have failed. The government put the ruling out in August 2011, and for six months the bishops tried to negotiate with them in good faith and get them to expand the definition of a meaningful religious exemption. And just last week, Obama called up and said, ‘Thank you for talking with us, but we think this strikes a fair balance.’
    “Which means,” Bordlee said, “it strikes no balance.”
    It also means, in her view, that the time for engaging in reasonable dialogue is over. Certainly, there is good reason to support renewed Congressional efforts to carve out a strong religious exemption that would not subject the church to violating its conscience rights, but hell would likely freeze over before the president would sign such a bill into law.
    It’s time for the bishops to take the president to court, Bordlee said.
    “They need to file suit,” she said. “There’s already been a lawsuit filed by Belmont Abbey College, and really, it would mean more than if just the (Benedictine) monks are suing Obama. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has to defend the First Amendment freedom of conscience, and they need to do it in court because they’ve already tried to do it the diplomatic way and Obama called them up and said, ‘Sorry, this is it.’”
    As an attorney with experience in the federal courts, Bordlee believes the bishops would have an extremely powerful case.
    “The last time I checked, the First Amendment was still in the Bill of Rights,” she said. “I think they’ve got a good chance of winning.”
    Bolstering those chances was a recent unanimous Supreme Court decision in a case involving the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church case that strengthened protections for religious freedom. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had claimed during oral arguments before the Supreme Court that it could force the church to restore a fired minister to her teaching position, but all nine justices disagreed.
    “It shows that this court does respect religious liberty,” Bordlee said.
    So what are the options? Should the bishops file suit and nothing is decided by the time their one-year “grace period” for complying with the law expires, Bordlee said “they can either violate their conscience and bow to Caesar or they can pull health insurance from all their employees. The problem there is that violates the Obama-care requirement that if you have 50 employees or more, you must provide health insurance.
    “They can’t do that because it’s a federal law, which means they would have to pay a penalty. So, if the courts don’t come through in time, I would just not get the coverage and pay the penalty.”
    It’s too soon to know exactly how much that penalty would be, but the current law prescribes collective penalties for large organizations in the millions of dollars.
    Bordlee thinks the possible end game is to force the Catholic Church out of the health care business altogether.
    “If (the bishops) want to be extreme, they could just shut down all of their Catholic services,” Bordlee said. “The problem is as Christians, you want to provide services. That’s what the Obama administration wants. It wants the bishops to shut down their hospitals so they can take them over. It wants this to be government run. It wants Catholics to leave the field.”
    Bordlee said she is proud of the line in the sand drawn by the bishops.
    “They have spoken out as one and said, ‘We will not bend on this,’” Bordlee said. “This is an unprecedented action on the part of the government. Nothing even comes close. The federal government, in the history of our nation, has never tried to force the largest provider of health care in the world to violate their consciences.
    “This issue is not about the morality of birth control or abortion. This is about the heart of our first liberty, which is religious liberty. If the Catholic Church isn’t safe, no one is safe. This is a direct strike at the heart of what it means to be an American with individual liberties.”
    Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at

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