By Julie Asher
INDIANAPOLIS (CNS) — The debate over the federal contraceptive mandate and the fight for religious freedom is not about “a particular policy choice” but is “a debate over the role of religion in American society and the freedom and integrity of the Catholic Church’s mission,” the head of the Knights of Columbus said June 22.
“It’s not an ordinary national debate. There’s a great deal at stake here,” Supreme Knight Carl Anderson told Catholic News Service in an interview in Indianapolis. It is an attempt “to redefine the role of religion in America,” he added.
Anderson was at the Catholic Media Conference, the annual joint convention of the Catholic Press Association and the Catholic Academy for Communications Arts Professionals. He was scheduled to address the closing banquet of the June 20-22 media gathering.
The mandate issued by the Department of Health and Human Services would require most religious employers to provide contraceptives and sterilization free of charge to their employees.
To be exempt, a religious organization must have “the inculcation of religious values as its purpose”; primarily employ “persons who share its religious tenets”; primarily serve “persons who share its religious tenets”; and be a nonprofit organization under specific sections of the Internal Revenue Code.
Catholics are at the center of the HHS debate right now, he said, but it began with the Lutherans in the Supreme Court case in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, a challenge to a Lutheran school’s firing of a teacher. The attempt to more narrowly define who is a religious employee was unanimously rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Anderson said “virtually every religious denomination” in the U.S. — “from the Hare Krishnas to the Catholic Church” — got involved in the case because the position taken by the Obama administration on Hosanna-Tabor, he said, could be characterized as the government’s most restrictive definition of religious ministry.
Chief Justice John Roberts said “not even the pope would qualify for this,” Anderson noted.
“In many ways that view of religion is continued in the HHS mandate, in the sense that once again the administration is taking a very restrictive, very narrow definition of religious institutions,” he told CNS.
“Some say what kind of Christian would impose that kind of restriction on religion in America? I don’t think that’s the proper question,” Anderson said, referring to remarks made about President Barack Obama’s religious faith. “I don’t think we ought to be in the business of judging people about the sincerity of their faith.
“So it’s not that question,” he continued. “But I think it is a legitimate question to say why is this definition so narrow, and why are we looking to push religion further and further outside the public square. I think this is what this debate is about.”
According to a Knights of Columbus-Marist Poll conducted in May, nearly three in four Americans — 74 percent to 26 percent — said freedom of religion should be protected, even if it conflicts with other laws. Majorities also would protect the First Amendment conscience rights of hospitals, health care workers and insurers.
The poll found that 50 percent of Americans have heard of the debate over the federal contraceptive mandate. Overall, the poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.
Anderson told CNS he hopes the June 21-July 4 “fortnight for freedom” will raise the consciousness of Catholics “as to the importance of free exercise of religion and the historic role of the Catholic community in America.”
Pointing to the “tremendous contribution” of Catholic schools, charities, and hospitals and other health care facilities to U.S. society, he said the two-week observance is not just about freedom of worship but “the free exercise of a faith-based charity … which is one of the things I think differentiates American society from other countries.”
The “personal dimension of Christian charity is so important,” because it creates “a solidarity which really is foundational to a humane society” and can “really transform culture,” Anderson said, but he added that Catholics don’t “realize well enough … the potential power we have through charity to change the culture.”
Responding to claims the fortnight is politically motivated, he said it is not a partisan effort and neither is there “any news” in the fact the Knights of Columbus is supporting the effort financially, he said.
“It should not come as a surprise to people that the Knights support the bishops’ mission on religious freedom,” he explained. “We support the bishops’ conference … local bishops … local pastors in a lot of ways. So the fact that once again the Knights of Columbus are stepping up to help the bishops on a project to me it’s not very newsworthy, frankly.”
Asked about the new movie “For Greater Glory,” about the Cristero Rebellion in Mexico in the 1920s, Anderson said the story resonates with the Knights, because a number of the martyrs of the war were Knights.
He does see one fundamental parallel between the situation in Mexico at that time and the current fight in the U.S. over the HHS mandate and religious freedom.
Both governments made “a serious effort to limit the role of the Catholic Church, “he said. “Catholics were right in Mexico to attempt peaceful means to resist that, and I think Catholics are right today to use the means at our disposal — the courts, comments, legislation. …. I wouldn’t draw any more parallels beyond that.”
After a period of peaceful resistance, the brutality of Mexico’s dictator, Plutarco Elias Calles, ultimately led Catholic clergy and laity to take up arms.
“It’s obvious we’re not in a situation like that,” Anderson said. “Trying to read more into it I think is unjustified.”
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