Pod people: White House vs. the Wheaton College covenant

From the very beginning, some mainstream news organization have — appropriately so — emphasized that many, if not most, progressive religious organizations have not only supported Obamacare, but the controversial Health & Human Services mandate as well.

This raises a logical question: What are the doctrinal fault lines that are dividing religious groups on the many moral issues linked to the mandate?

Obviously, some groups oppose the mandate — period. Catholics oppose its requirement that all forms of contraception be covered. Then there are evangelicals, such as the Hobby Lobby owners, who have no problem with most forms of birth control, but oppose the so-called morning-after pill and other contraceptives that they believe — scientists are split on the issue — induce abortions.

That would seem to be that. However, there is another moral complication that is affecting many doctrinally defined ministries, non-profits and schools that continue to oppose the mandate. Yes, this is the Little Sisters of the Poor camp, which also includes many schools and universities, such as Wheaton College.

More on that in a moment, since this was the topic that drove this week’s episode of “Crossroads,” the GetReligion podcast. Click here to listen in.

So what is going on with Wheaton, the Little Sisters, et al.?

This brings us back to the infamous “tmatt trio,” those three doctrinal questions that I have long used — as a journalistic tactic — to probe the differences between warring camps inside various churches. Remember the three questions?

(1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

Think about that third question for a moment. In recent decades, churches have been fighting about the moral status of homosexual acts and same-sex marriage. At times, it’s hard to remember that progressive and orthodox churches are also divided over the moral status of premarital sex and, in a few cases, even extramarital sex (some liberal theologians have argued that the redemptive work of the Holy Spirit can even been seen in some acts of infidelity).

This bring’s us back to Wheaton College and the other ministries, non-profits and schools that do not want to cooperate with the HHS mandate in any way. As I wrote the other day, many:

[Read more...]

Attention editors: Is there a ‘Little Sisters’ case in your area?

While the post-Hobby Lobby meltdown continues on the cultural and journalistic left — this New Yorker piece is beyond parody — it’s important to remember that, from a church-state separation point of view, the most serious issues linked to the Health & Human Services mandate have not been settled.

Here at GetReligion, we have been urging reporters and editors to look at this as a story that is unfolding on three levels.

(1) First, there are churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious institutions that are directly linked to “freedom of worship” and, thus, in the eyes of the White House, should be granted a full exemption by the state. The problem is that the U.S. Supreme Court has never been anxious to define what is and what is not “worship,” since that is a doctrinal matter.

(2) Religious ministries, non-profits and schools that — functioning as voluntary associations — believe that their work in the public square should continue to be defined by specific doctrines and traditions. The leaders of these groups, for religious reasons, also believe that these doctrines and traditions should either be affirmed by their employees or that, at the very least, that their employees should not expect the organization’s aid in opposing them. In other words, these ministries do not want to fund acts that they consider sinful or cooperate in their employees (or others in the voluntary community, such as students) being part of such activities. More on this shortly.

(3) For-profit, closely held corporations such as Hobby Lobby which are owned by believers who do not want to be required to violate their own beliefs.

There are no conflicts, at this point, about group one. A major case linked to group three has just been addressed by the high court. But did the so-called Hobby Lobby decision also settle the cases in that second category? That’s the question that many newsrooms managers need to be asking because, as I argued the other day, in journalism “all news is local.”

So, journalists in Chicago, I am looking at you. This Associated Press report can serve as a wake-up call:

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration said Wednesday that the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of the religious claims of Hobby Lobby and other for-profit businesses supports the government’s position in separate, ongoing disputes with religious-oriented nonprofit organizations.

The administration urged the justices to deny a request from evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois that the government says would block its students and employees from free access to emergency contraceptives. The Justice Department said the Hobby Lobby decision essentially endorses the accommodation the administration already has made to faith-affiliated charities, hospitals and universities.

Wednesday’s court filing was the administration’s first legal response to the Supreme Court decision on Monday that allowed Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby Inc. and other businesses to assert religious claims to avoid covering some or all contraceptives in employee health plans. Houses of worship and other religious institutions whose primary purpose is to spread the faith are exempt from the requirement to offer birth control.

The problem, of course, is that the Wheaton College community covenant document includes a clear statement that this voluntary association will:

… uphold chastity among the unmarried (1 Cor. 6:18) and the sanctity of marriage between a man and woman (Heb. 13:4). …

Must the college cooperate in offering its students and unmarried employees — in violation of its own doctrines — all FDA-approved forms of contraception, sterilizations and even “morning-after pills”?

As I noted the other day, there is more to this conflict than the mere signing of a piece of paper that says these services will, allegedly be funded by the health-care providers themselves, with the government’s guidance (as opposed to these providers simply raising health-care rates for the affected ministries). The groups in this second, doctrinally defined ministry category are, in effect, asking that the government allow their voluntary associations to defend their own teachings when dealing with members of their own communities. Wheaton, for example, doesn’t want the government to help students and employees violate the vows they have, of their own free will, taken when they signed on with the college. (Wheaton College is, of course, part of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the global network in which I teach and the CCCU has backed the school’s stance.)

The Associated Press editors take all of that complexity and condense it — in a set of unattributed factual statements — to the precise language used in White House talking points:

[Read more...]

And the Baltimore Hobby Lobby angle is … the Little Sisters

All news is local.

That’s one of the first laws that journalists quote whenever we try to explain what is and what isn’t news to those outside the profession. In other words, when editors rank stories — deciding what goes on A1, for example — one of the main factors that they take into account is whether an event or trend hits close to home for their own readers. What’s the local angle?

With that in mind, it isn’t all that surprising that The Baltimore Sun was the rare newspaper that dedicated a rather sizable chunk of its Hobby Lobby decision story to the Little Sisters of the Poor and to religious liberty issues linked to Obamacare that, apparently, remain to be resolved.

Many newspapers forgot the Sisters altogether, but not the newspaper that lands in my front yard.

Why the stress on the status of doctrinally defined non-profit ministries that are still protesting the Health and Human Services mandate on a variety of contraceptive services? That’s easy to explain.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court’s conservatives found that the requirement for contraceptive coverage tied to Obama’s signature health care law ran afoul of a 1993 law expanding religious freedom. The decision, written by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., could have implications not only for secular companies but also religious organizations that are seeking a more complete exemption from the same requirement, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catonsville-based Catholic charity.

In other words, (all together now): All news is local.

So what is the nature of the HHS mandate objections that remain for many religious ministries? Here is how the Sun took that on:

[Read more...]

HHS ‘religious employer’ definition changed? (updated)

It would be hard to find a city in American that contains more historic Catholic ministries than Baltimore. Thus, there are quite a few people here in Charm City who are involved in the legal warfare over the Health and Human Services mandate requiring most religious institutions to offer their employees, and students, health-insurance plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved contraceptives, including “morning-after pills.”

In particular, the historic Baltimore suburb of Catonsville includes a group linked to a highly symbolic ministry caught up in this church-state fight. There is a good chance that, eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court could hear a case that literally would be called The Little Sisters of the Poor vs. Kathleen Sebelius.

The Baltimore Sun team has to cover this group, of course. Today’s tiny Christmas Eve Eve edition includes an A1 report that is surprisingly good — except on one of the most crucial facts linked to this case.

The key, of course, is the unique three-level approach to religious liberty that is being used by this White House. The Sun team knows that the Little Sisters of the Poor are caught in the middle, between the for-profit companies that are fighting the mandate (think Hobby Lobby) and the churches and strictly denominational organizations that have been granted conscience-clause exemptions.

To its credit, the story includes — in addition to logical pro-White House sources — this strong passage, with a logical voice of authority, on the viewpoint argued by the Sisters:

Although dozens of for-profit and nonprofit employers have filed lawsuits over the requirement, the Becket Fund says the Little Sisters’ lawsuit was the first of its kind because it could potentially affect hundreds of nonprofit Catholic ministries. Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori said the Little Sisters’ service is “unmistakably a work of religion” and said the issue is one of religious liberty that could affect all religious people, not just Catholics.

“The government is drawing lines where the church does not draw them,” said Lori, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. “We see serving the poor, educating the young, healing the sick, as a natural outgrowth from what we believe and how we worship. And so we believe that all of these ministries should be exempt.” …

Planned Parenthood characterizes the law’s religious exemption as expansive and says it will allow 350,000 churches, religious schools and houses of worship to get out of the requirement. At issue in this Little Sisters of the Poor case is whether groups that don’t fall under that exemption should be counted as “religious employers.”

Like I said, this is a pretty good report and it did appear on A1. So what is the problem?

[Read more...]

Hey, LA Times, there’s more to HHS fight than Hobby Lobby

First things first: I have to admit that I almost choked on my diet cherry cola when I read the double-decker headline on this Los Angeles Times news feature about the next round of cultural warfare at the U.S. Supreme Court. Ready? You have been warned:

In new term, Supreme Court may steer to right on key social issues

The Supreme Court’s conservative bloc has a clear chance to shift the law to the right on abortion, contraception, religion and campaign funding

Now, faithful GetReligion readers will know that — as a pro-life Democrat — I am not pleased when journalists slap simplistic religious or political labels on people. In particular, it is often important to separate religious doctrine from political beliefs. When covering Republicans, it is also crucial to grasp that there are people who are conservative on economic and openly political issues, while veering to the left on moral and cultural issues. This familiar name leaps to mind: Justice Anthony Kennedy.

So I understand that, on some issues, the current high court does contain five people who from time to time form a “conservative bloc.” But does this court really contain a “conservative bloc” when addressing moral, cultural and religious issues?

To understand my main problem with the content of this story, it helps to see the framing. Let’s get started:

If the justices on the right agree among themselves, they could free wealthy donors to give far more to candidates and parties and clear the way for exclusively Christian prayers at local government events.

Wait, what’s with the “clear the way” language? Isn’t the issue whether citizens, under the First Amendment, can CONTINUE to offer prayers that contain exclusively Christian images and language? I mean, I hate to break this to folks on the left coast, but lots of folks have been using Trinitarian language in public prayers in the American heartland for a long, long time. This is news? The issue is whether the state has the power to forbid, control or at the very least edit this form of speech.

Back to the story’s overture and the passage that sure as heckfire caught my attention:

By next spring, the justices are likely to revisit part of President Obama’s healthcare law to decide a religious-rights challenge to the requirement that large private employers provide their workers with coverage for contraceptives. Dozens of employers who run for-profit companies have sued, contending that providing health insurance that includes a full range of contraceptives violates their religious beliefs.

Yes, it is possible that the court will take a second look at the fine details in that healthcare law. We know that because one of its most liberal members dropped a hint about that in her written opinion in support of the “individual mandate” plank in the Health and Human Services regulations.

[Read more...]

Got news? White House vs. Little Sisters of the Poor

From coast to coast, the lawyers of religious groups and charities can almost quote the following legal language by heart. This is, of course, linked to the strange — from a church-state separation perspective — Health and Human Services mandate that attempts to create two different levels of religious liberty in the United States.

Group health plans sponsored by certain religious employers, and group health insurance coverage in connection with such plans, are exempt from the requirement to cover contraceptive services. A religious employer is one that: (1) has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose; (2) primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets; (3) primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets; and (4) is a non-profit organization under Internal Revenue Code section 6033(a)(1) and section 6033(a)(3)(A)(i) or (iii). …

To cut to the chase, this legal language appears to offer (Justice Anthony Kennedy, please call your answering service) religious liberty for activities inside sanctuary doors, involving believers, and religious liberty lite for forms of religious ministry that impact the public.

As I noted, via direct quotation, in a recent Scripps Howard News Service column:

“Consider Blessed Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity reaching out to the poorest of the poor without regard for their religious affiliation,” said Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lorio this June, during the American bishops’ Fortnight For Freedom campaign. “The church seeks to affirm the dignity of those we serve not because they are Catholic but because we are Catholic. The faith we profess, including its moral teachings, impels us to reach out — just as Jesus did — to those in need and to help build a more just and peaceful society.”

Now this precise conflict has hit the headlines in an amazing and symbolic case that simply has to end up in a high court, sooner rather than later, unless White House lawyers jump in and make changes.

The problem is that this story is making headlines, at this point, in Catholic and alternative, “conservative” news sources. Once again, we are in that strange era in which the defense of old-fashioned liberal values is suddenly “conservative.”

In this case, we are dealing with a news story — period. Here it is at LifeSiteNews.com, with material drawn from, ironically, the rather funky libertarian conservative Daily Caller.

The Obama administration’s HHS mandate may force the Catholic Little Sisters of the Poor to cease their U.S. operations, according to Sister Constance Carolyn Veit, the religious order’s communications director.

The Little Sisters currently provide group homes and daily care for the elderly poor in 30 U.S. cities.

Sister Constance told The Daily Caller that the Little Sisters may not qualify for a religious exemption from ObamaCare’s requirement that employers provide coverage for contraceptives, sterilizations and abortion-causing drugs free of charge to female workers.

“We are not exempt from the [ObamaCare] mandate because we neither serve nor employ a predominantly Catholic population,” Constance said. ”We hire employees and serve/house the elderly regardless of race and religion, so that makes us ineligible for the exemption being granted churches.”

Catholic teaching forbids contraception, sterilization and abortion, but President Obama’s health-care overhaul law requires employers to offer services that cause all three to their employees without a co-pay. Failure to comply will result in fines of $100 a day per employee — even for religious orders like the Little Sisters whose members have taken vows of poverty.

“[I]t could be a serious threat to our mission in the U.S.,” said Sister Constance, “because we would never be able to afford to pay the fines involved. We have difficulty making ends meet just on a regular basis; we have no extra funding that would cover these fines.”

My point, in this post, is not to debate the HHS mandate itself. However, it is clear that, as currently worded, the Little Sisters of the Poor do not qualify for protection — for the same reason that the sisters walking in the footsteps of Mother Teresa do not qualify.

My point here is journalistic: Is this an interesting news story?

I would argue that it would be hard to imagine a more symbolic showdown than, literally, The United States vs. The Little Sisters of the Poor. That, friends and neighbors, is quite a headline. The fines hitting the various branches of this poverty-based religious order would, literally, be millions of dollars a year.

But this would never happen, right?

As it turns out, the Little Sisters of the Poor have previously been forced to leave other countries because of religious-liberty disputes.

“[A]s Little Sisters of the Poor, we are not strangers to religious intolerance,” Sister Constance wrote in a June 2012 essay for The Tablet, a Brooklyn-based Catholic newspaper. “Our foundress was born at the height of the French Revolution and established our congregation in its aftermath.”

“Our sisters have been forced to leave numerous countries, including China, Myanmar and Hungary, because of religious intolerance,” she wrote. “We pray that the United States will not be added to this list.”

Got news? Not yet.

Help your GetReligionistas look for the headlines in the mainstream press. This is a poignant news story, right?


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X