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Rev. Wester and Dowd
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In an age of sound-bite journalism, the Catholic Church's positions on complex issues are often relegated to simplified remarks. While we respect the opinions of others, it is essential to avoid simplifying the current religious liberty debate to the point of distortion, as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, unfortunately, did in her May 24 column in The Tribune ("Father doesn't know best," Opinion).

In an effort to make a case against the church's objection to the Health and Human Services mandate requiring most religious institutions to offer contraception within their health insurance policies, Dowd ignores complicated First Amendment issues and church teaching to try to paint the Catholic Church as anti-women and abusive. Unfortunately, a column that was ostensibly about a relevant issue ended up as nothing more than a rambling attack on the Catholic Church.

What Dowd missed was an opportunity to discuss an important national question — whether government, without a compelling reason, can override religious beliefs and impose its standards on the internal policies of a religious employer.

Despite Dowd's unsubstantiated assertions that the Catholic Church is trying to impose its beliefs on others, the situation is actually the reverse. The church is practicing its faith within its institutions — it is HHS that is intruding on the manner in which this is done. HHS is imposing its definition of religion on the church and requiring that specific insurance provisions be offered to employees at church institutions. Under the HHS definition, "houses of worship" that serve only their members are "religions," and thereby exempt from the mandate.

However, religious entities that put their faith into action by serving people who are not members of their religion are not eligible for the exemption. In Utah, this means our Catholic social service organizations, such as Catholic Community Services, elementary and high schools, and the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen, would have to choose between serving only Catholics, in violation of our beliefs, or pay for an insurance policy that offers contraception, also contrary to church teaching.

Dowd doesn't ask if government should be able to force a religious institution to violate its beliefs without a compelling reason. While she faults the church for questioning the mandate, she never asks why HHS circumvents the First Amendment. After all, pregnancy is not a disease, contraception is readily available to those who want it, and government does not demand free coverage for other drugs, including life-saving prescriptions such as high blood pressure pills, cancer medications or insulin injections.

Where is the compelling governmental interest to justify forcing the Catholic Church to violate its beliefs?

Dowd asserts that the Catholic Church's arguments against the mandate are all about a desire to subjugate women. As evidence, she cites cases of priests sexually abusing minors. Sexual abuse by church officials, or anyone else, is intolerable and must be addressed, but those issues have nothing to do with a government mandate regarding internal employee benefit decisions.

Dowd is convinced that church leaders are heading to court to undermine President Barack Obama in an election year. Actually, the organizations suing over the mandate are removing the matter from the political arena and placing it into the legal system.

Meanwhile, Catholic entities continue to work with the executive branch on the president's proposed, but as yet unwritten, accommodation for religious organizations. Catholic leaders supported congressional efforts to pass legislation addressing the issues. The legislation failed.

The next step is to ask the courts to determine the parameters of the First Amendment, as they were established to do. Going to court is not a political maneuver. It is a protection available to any person or entity that feels a constitutional right has been violated.

Rev. John C. Wester is bishop of the Catholic diocese of Salt Lake City.

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