"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . ."
From the First Amendment to the Constitution
Religious freedom is no trivial or mere theoretical issue. It has a direct impact on every person regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof and is an essential dimension of social justice.
Religious freedom is under attack nationally and here in Vermont.
Desire for religious freedom moved many of our early settlers to risk a hazardous voyage to the "New World." Concern for religious freedom endured and became a fundamental principle on which the United States was founded, solemnly guaranteed in the First Amendment.
In recent years, despite strong legal framework, many issues being presented to the United States Supreme Court have the been sought to undermine religious freedom. The good news is that the court has routinely supported religious freedom. The bad news is that an aggrieved party must present its position to the court to uphold that freedom.
Religious liberty includes the right to worship according to one's convictions and the freedom to follow one's conscience. This has been affirmed in some interesting cases, including the Hobby Lobby case in which a privately owned corporation sought an exemption from providing mandatory contraceptive and abortion coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). And religious liberty and conscience protection for health care personnel were recognized in the Roe v. Wade decision; the court held: "Neither physician, hospital, nor hospital personnel shall be required to perform any act violative of personally-held moral principles."
Hence, the court has found in favor of conscience protection for employers providing health insurance and for health care personnel.
In the case of Little Sisters of the Poor (and the other plaintiffs), who argued that they should not have to cooperate with the government provision of contraception coverage because that would be cooperating with evil, a settlement has been reached. The Sisters will not provide any assistance with the contraceptive and abortion coverage. The government will provide a separate policy with a separate insurance card; it will be completely independent of the Sisters.
Vermont legislators have initiated a measure to pre-empt any court ruling or legislation changing the contraceptive mandate of the ACA. House Bill H.620 would require all medical insurance policies to cover contraception, including long-term implantable contraception, sterilization and abortion.
Attempts by the Diocese of Burlington to obtain an exemption from that requirement were rejected in the House Health Care Committee and on the House floor. As of the date of writing this article, the bill is before the Senate Finance Committee. I anticipate the bill to pass the Senate without an amendment that will uphold a religious exemption.
Reflecting on these events in the Vermont Legislature, three points are extremely troubling.
First, the legislature's refusal to grant an exemption to religious institutions even after a careful explanation that the bill would necessitate the diocese to make a choice between violating its religious principles or be in violation of the law. The diocese seeks to protect and secure the religious liberty guaranteed by the U. S. Constitution, not impose its tenets on others. The bill, as proposed, does not provide the religious exemption contained in the Federal ACA, rather it extends the mandate further. The legislature could have crafted a compromise in line with that done with the Little Sisters of the Poor.
Secondly, hypocrisy. Vermont values diversity and civil liberties and has paved the way for many civil rights issues; this bill denies one particular church denomination a fundamental civil liberty guaranteed to all persons in the U.S. This denial exposes unmitigated hypocrisy.
Thirdly, dialogue among House Health Care Committee members while in committee session was dismissive of our position. Instead of reflecting on the issue of religious liberty and the legal implications of the proposed bill, some members proceeded to ridicule the Catholic Church's teaching on contraception. Two of the more telling comments questioned whether Catholics even follow the Church's teaching and derisively speculated that most students at Catholic colleges are on birth control. Both of these assertions are utterly irrelevant to good legislative process.
Legislators have neither the authority nor competence to negate the moral teachings of the Catholic Church. Doing so unmasks a bias of discrimination, tainted with anti-Catholic animus. Above all else, such conduct deprives Catholic Americans and the Church of our rights guaranteed under the First Amendment
Every Vermonter–Catholic and non–should be outraged.
Deacon Pete Gummere, M.S., M.A. serves at Corpus Christi Parish. He is a bioethicist and an adjunct faculty member at Pontifical College Josephinum, where he teaches courses in medical morality and moral theology in the Josephinum Diaconate Institute.
Deacon Pete Gummere, director of the Permanent Diaconate for the Diocese of Burlington, serves at Corpus Christi Parish, St. Johnsbury. He is a bioethicist and an adjunct faculty member at Josephinum Diaconate Institute where he teaches courses in medical morality and moral theology.