RUSTHOVEN: A chilling threat to faith-based services

March 3, 2012

RusthovenPresident Obama wants to force nearly all private health care plans to cover sterilization, contraception and drugs that induce abortion. The Senate last week voted down the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act (co-sponsored by Richard Lugar and Dan Coats), which would have exempted from this diktat those with moral objections, such as Catholic hospitals and charities.

Whatever your views may be on sterilization, contraception or abortion, if you care about freedom, you should support this act.

If you’ve followed the story, you know the rule announced by the Obama administration had a “religious exemption,” but one crafted so restrictively that most faith-based organizations can’t meet it. In essence, an actual church doesn’t have to provide coverage for what it considers morally wrong; but church-sponsored organizations—such as charities whose mission isn’t to proselytize but to help the needy regardless of faith—are compelled to do exactly that.

Thus, among those who (in the Obama view) don’t deserve a faith-based exemption are the myriad of Catholic hospitals, universities and charities. Indeed, as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has pointed out, “not even Jesus and his disciples would have qualified for the exemption, because it excludes those who mainly serve people of another faith.”

There’s also no exemption for objecting insurers, for objecting secular employers, for objecting for-profit religious employers, or even for objecting individuals (including, for example, a Catholic employee who affirmatively does not want coverage for contraception or abortifacients).

Some local perspective helps illustrate the impact. As IBJ reported in 2010, about 40 percent of hospital services in the Indianapolis area are provided by St. Vincent and St. Francis. The Catholic church also operates two emergency shelters and three homes for the aged in the Indianapolis Archdiocese, as well as two colleges with around 4,000 students.

Catholic charities in the Indianapolis region annually serve over 40,000 in need, without regard to their faith. Nationally, Catholic charities provide services to over 10 million people, again, without regard to their religious convictions.

In the Obama administration view, all that may be fine—but Catholic charities still must provide insurance coverage, without cost to the participants, for things the Catholic Church believes are morally and religiously wrong.

Ah, but didn’t the president respond to the protest with an “accommodation” and “compromise”? The president’s response is neither of these things. The rule is unchanged. Its application to non-exempted employers is but temporarily delayed. And the “compromise’s” centerpiece is a new federal decree, this one ordering the insurer itself to provide coverage—without charge!—for the activities the religious employer finds morally objectionable.

This is astonishing. For one, many faith-based hospitals, charities and employers are self-insurers, making the Obama “compromise” meaningless word play. Far more important, since when have we become a country whose chief executive may order private companies or individuals—in the insurance business or any other—to provide anything “without charge”?

This is straight out of “Banana Republics for Dummies.” Decreeing that goods or services shall be provided “for free” sounds like something Argentina’s late, unlamented Juan Peron could have said in the 1950s, or (using a living and leftist example) Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez would say today. But the president of the United States?

You may disagree with the Catholic Church on contraception and/or abortion. But everyone’s freedom is on the line when the government can order faith-based groups to do what their religious convictions forbid—and everyone’s freedom is at risk when a president can order someone to do something “without charge.”

Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, that should be over the line. If it’s not, heaven help us.•


Rusthoven, an Indianapolis attorney and graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, was associate counsel to President Reagan. Send comments on this column to


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