Faced With Birth Control Mandate, Local Catholics Say Religious Freedom Is At Stake
Speaker, parishioners discuss the clash between the Catholic Church and Obama's Affordable Care Act.
As the Supreme Court discussed the legality of the Affordable Care Act this week, Catholics gathered in Northbrook to discuss its ramifications to their faith.
At issue is the clash between the Catholic Church’s stance on contraception and one of the guidelines of the act championed by President Obama: a provision that would require health insurance providers to cover contraception and sterilization procedures at no cost to the patient. The provision does not exempt employers with a religious affiliation who hire people with diverse religious backgrounds — like the hundreds of schools and hospitals run by the Catholic Church nationwide. After Catholic bishops spoke out in opposition, Obama said that insurance companies, not religious organizations, would shoulder the cost. But Catholic leaders have not been satisfied with that answer.
Requiring the church to offer birth control coverage at all is a violation of its religious principles, say Catholics like Carl Scheeler, director of religious education at Visitation Parish in Elmhurst and the speaker at a Tuesday night gathering at St. Norbert Church in Northbrook. According to Scheeler, the Catholic Church teaches that contraception is morally wrong because sex should happen only within the framework of marriage and with the goal of procreation. So to ask the church to offer birth control free of charge — even if the money doesn’t come from church coffers — is to ask its leaders and congregants to violate their conscience, he says.
“I think politicians tend to see a problem like this as, ‘Well, how much of your conscience can you violate?” Scheeler said. “You can’t violate any of it.”
“We either follow the law because we’re Catholic and we support laws and the government, or we don’t follow the law because we have to follow our conscience,” he added.
People came to hear Scheeler from as far away as Tinley Park, Orland Park and Palos Park. Many in the audience were members of their church’s Respect Life Committee, a group that advocates for anti-abortion policies both inside and outside of the church.
The lecture was organized by Emilia Yosick, a St. Norbert parishioner and chair of the Respect Life Committee for one of six subdivisions of the archdiocese of Chicago. Originally, she had asked Scheeler to lead a conversation with men about areas of society that affect a marriage. But when she heard about the birth control mandate, she thought, “We have to move, we have to move right now.”
So she asked Scheeler to change the topic of his speech, in hopes that it would mobilize more Catholics around Chicagoland to advocate against the Affordable Care Act.
“They don’t know a lot, and I think that was our main concern,” Yosick said. “We know other things are coming down the pike.”
In his speech, Scheeler talked about the Church’s teachings on contraception and religious liberty and how those relate to the healthcare act.
Although the church teaches that contraception is immoral, studies show that many Catholic women use birth control — a fact often cited by the act’s supporters.
“It’s the only issue where Catholics disagree with the church as extensively as they do,” Scheeler told Patch after his lecture.
Regardless of whether the church is right or wrong about contraception, Scheeler said that he felt the focus on birth control was distracting. The issue, he said, is much larger.
“If it was just about contraception, you’d have a hard time uniting the clergy,” he said. “All of the U.S. bishops have been strikingly united on this issue in a way that they have not been united in the past.”
That’s because what the mandate really amounts to, he said, is a violation of the constitutional right to religious freedom. And if the Supreme Court rules that the act is legal, the consequences could be huge, he added.
“The Catholic Church has an immense health care infrastructure. Our capacity for civil disobedience far exceeds anyone else’s,” he said. “And I think that we would have a lot of institutions cooperating with us.”
Father Bob Heinz, pastor of St. Norbert Catholic Church, said that the church provides health insurance to its employees through the archdiocese. While Illinois law mandates that employers offer some form of birth control coverage, the archdiocese is currently taking advantage of a federal tax shelter that preempts state mandates for religious institutions.
Heinz said that while the birth control mandate would not directly affect his church or the affiliated school, since the archdiocese handles health insurance, the issue was certainly on the minds of his parishioners.
“A lot of people have been talking about it,” he said. And like Scheeler, he believes that Catholics’ civil liberties are at stake.
“It’s really my right as an American citizen to have religious freedom,” he said. “I thought I was given the right to practice my faith.”
During oral arguments in the Supreme Court this week, justices questioned the legality of the health care act’s mandate that each individual must have insurance coverage. They also questioned whether the whole act could stand without that provision. Now, they will meet in closed session for up to three months before reaching a verdict on the Affordable Care Act.
Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules — and even if the health care act is struck down, Scheeler said Catholics should not consider the battle won.
“We cannot forget what’s happened because it’s an indication of what will happen, too,” he said.