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Commentary: Religious freedom comes under fire
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Those who wrote the First Freedom into the First Amendment did not limit that freedom to worship: They protected the free exercise of religion, which, along with worship, includes religious ministries and practices.

For individuals, this freedom includes matters of conscience in war, medicine and other areas of life, from dress to diet. For churches and other religious entities, it includes evangelizing, performing works of charity and mercy, and operating hospitals, adoption agencies and schools at all levels.

Such ministries are born of a love of God and our neighbors.

I make these points for two reasons.

First, a recent writer to these pages said freedom of religion was not under attack since Americans are still able to worship where they choose. As noted above, worship, while central to our freedom, remains only part of it.

Second, major elements of Freedom of Religion are in fact under attack.

The most visible of these at the moment is in the Department of Health and Human Service's refusal to grant a religious exemption to the hospitals owned by the Catholic Church in a dispute over health insurance.

The administration's refusal to grant this exemption should concern all friends of religious freedom.

As a Jan. 22 editorial in The Washington Post asserted: "... requiring a religiously affiliated employer to spend its own money in a way that violates its religious principles does not make an adequate accommodation for those deeply held views ... the administration should have expanded (the exemption)."

Also, 60 Jewish and Protestant leaders wrote a Dec. 21 letter to the president critical of how narrow the exemption is: "An organization does not cease to be a religious organization just because it serves the poor and needy."

Those who shrink from this HHS dispute because they disagree with the Catholic Church and its stand on birth control and abortion are missing the larger stakes for religious freedom.

Here is the background: HHS is requiring the Catholic Church to provide insurance for hospital employees that cover services the church has long considered wrong: contraceptives, some of them being abortifacients, and sterilization.

Just how narrow is the administration's religious exemption, which those 60 Jewish and Protestant leaders criticized as too narrow?

To qualify for the exemption, a hospital would have to employ and serve primarily people of the same religion. For a hospital to be that exclusive on both who they employ and who they treat medically is both impractical and morally repugnant.

Think of the Good Samaritan, a name many hospitals bear. The point of the parable is that we are to take a broad view of who our neighbor is. A narrow view imposed by a bureaucrat won't work.

Imagine a soup kitchen sponsored by a church living up to the administration's measure for a religious organization, turning away people who aren't of the same religion.

Charities and hospitals run by churches are religious ministries.

For Christians, they are at the heart of the gospel. Not that such good works deliver salvation: That comes from the grace of Christ alone. But Christ commands us to love our neighbor, to love one another, as He loved us.

The current HHS mandate is intruding on the Catholic Church's freedom to offer such love through the ministry of its hospitals and the right to hold to its most basic beliefs about life itself.

The church's choices under the HHS intrusion on its free exercise rights are all bad: It could:

  • Ignore its principles and cave in to the mandate.
  • Ignore the mandate and face stiff fines.
  • Sell the hospitals to for-profit operations, hurting the poor and working class families the hospitals serve.

These choices make clear the degree to which the administration is interfering with the church's rights.

For now, the free exercise clause remains part of First Amendment.

But if the administration can decide that a hospital does not qualify for a religious exemption because it does not employ and serve primarily people of the same religion, then our free exercise rights will no longer come from the Constitution. They will be lodged elsewhere. They will be granted at the pleasure of whoever is in the White House.

Tack Cornelius is a writer who lives in Gainesville and attends a local Baptist church.

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