When the government decides what religions do

Sister Mary Ann Walsh takes a look at what government will be doing with contraceptives — and the “religious exemption” — and isn’t impressed:

When it comes to church-state relations, both church and government historically have watched to keep the government out of church business. The U.S. Constitution acknowledged the significance of the role of the First Estate, when it declared that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

It is a clear message that government must not stick its proverbial camel’s nose under the church tent. Now, however, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has gone beyond nuzzling its nose where it does not belong. It has plunked itself right in the middle of the sanctuary. It is trying to define what a religion does and does not do.

This misguided move comes with a proposed HHS regulation to guide implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The regulation for the new health care reform bill demands that all health plans pay for contraceptives, sterilizations and education to use both.

In a tacit acknowledgement that this violates the Constitution’s cherished respect for religious liberty, HHS provides an exemption for religious employers — but with a catch. The church agency can only claim exemption if it primarily serves people of its own faith. It also must meet other requirements, such as employing mostly people of its own faith.

This means HHS is setting itself up to determine what constitutes church ministry and who Jesus meant when he referred to serving “the least of my brethren.”

Read the rest.